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Virtual volunteering easing the strain on heavy need during the pandemic

Volunteer numbers are down because of the pandemic. Hands On PDX is connecting nonprofits with help in a new and safe way.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Even though the calendar flipped over to 2021, we’re still in the thick of the pandemic. That means a lot of folks are still struggling, and you may be one of them.

“What we can do though is keep doing the right thing, thinking about our neighbors thinking about our community thinking again about ourselves about what character looks like,” said Todd Diskin, corporate and special events manager for Hands On Greater Portland

The organization is an arm of the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette. They connect nonprofits with volunteers to help fulfill their mission.

“When you have something like we're dealing with right now,” he said. “We're forced to not be together it makes it very challenging to make those connections really happen.” Diskin has been with Hands On Portland for two years, but has worked in the nonprofit world for a long time in schools and government realms.

Credit: Megan Zabel Holmes
Volunteers help with the MLK Day of Service in 2018

Diskin said over the last three months, a monthly average of 400 volunteers signed up through Hands On Portland’s online calendar where people can search for opportunities to help. That’s close to a 70% decrease compared to last year, when about 1,300 volunteers signed up per month in the same time frame.

With safety in mind, “pivot” is the word. They’re now connecting organizations and volunteers in a virtual way.

“It's been challenging for volunteers to get out, with the community health standards as they are," Diskin said. "We're not advocating for a lot of volunteerism, so volunteerism has changed significantly and it's been hard for our nonprofit partners to find opportunities where people can do so in a safe manner.”

From meal-making to sewing blankets for newborns, even cleaning books before they are donated. Brittany Brock is the volunteer coordinator at The Children’s Book Bank.

“Volunteers can pick up books from here to clean and repair, and then bring back to us, or they can have books that they plan to donate themselves and repair at home and then bring them in to donate as well,” she said.

Usually they take in 1,000 donated books a month but those numbers are down. However, she said the volunteer response has been overwhelming.

“So many people are…at home and wanting things to do so we've got a lot of people coming and picking up books to pass the time,” said Brock. “We've actually been told that families can feel the love behind each book that is given to them because they can really tell that he intentional process.”

Books are donated and left to sit for two days before being disinfected before and after each time they are handled. The books are placed in bundles or bags and sent to families and kids around Portland. Right now they are only accepting picture books, board books and graphic novels. 

Both Brock and Diskin made it clear to volunteer right now only if you are comfortable. Whether it’s cleaning books, or using your own kitchen to make meals for people, they appreciate the help.

“If you're not comfortable going into like crowded faces and you still want to serve your community, this is definitely an option if you want to do something as safe as possible,” Brock said.

“We need you, people need you, your community needs you…I always say, just get out in your community help your schools help your neighbors," Diskin said. "Think about something that you can do for somebody else.”

To find volunteer opportunities with Hands On Great Portland, here is their sign-up calendar.

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