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County volunteers a special group

April 13, 2011 | 01:38 PM
The drama in Madison has dominated my columns for the past few months. With lawyers and politicians now battling over the budget repair bill, I thought it would be a good time to catch up on a few issues impacting the county.

April 10 marks the start of National Volunteer Week. As the county has downsized its workforce over the past decade, I have come to appreciate the increasingly important role volunteers are playing in delivering services to the public. Walworth County government supports two volunteer initiatives. The first effort is led by our volunteer organizer, Colleen Lesniak.

She is a county employee who is responsible for placing volunteers in county departments and programs. While the job may seem straightforward, there's a lot to it. Colleen promotes awareness of the importance of volunteerism, both among the public and within the county organization.

The first half of this equation is more understandable. The public needs to know that the county has a need for volunteers and what types of opportunities are available. The second aspect of creating awareness, by challenging county managers to think of ways in which volunteers could serve their programs, was more interesting for me to watch.

While some county departments, such as the nursing home and special needs school, have long histories of engaging volunteers, other departments, including my own administration department, were far less familiar with the concept. I will admit that volunteers don't turn out in droves to file and answer phones in the county administrator's office, but last year, one person actually did. Other less visible departments, such as our finance and land use and resource management departments, have also put volunteers to work.

From the perspective of the volunteers, their reasons for donating their time are varied, as well. In many cases, retired folks like to stay active in promoting programs they support or just keeping their work skills sharp. The recession added unemployed workers to the mix of volunteers. Their reasoning, which I think was sound, was that having something on their resume was better than having nothing. In many cases, it also provided a reference who could vouch for their work ethic. Finally, interns from the two four-year universities in the county, Whitewater and George Williams, as well as students from Gateway Technical College, learn valuable lessons on the job to supplement their classroom work. In addition to creating interest, both among volunteers and county departments, Colleen is responsible for ensuring background checks are conducted and statistics regarding the program are maintained.

The county's volunteer effort really began to take off in 2009. In that year's budget, Colleen's position, which was half-time and dedicated solely to the nursing home, was upgraded to full-time status with a countywide mission. Office space in the county's Government Center was provided as well. The numbers speak to the success of the program. In 2010, volunteers donated 28,136 hours of service to county programs. In terms of planning for positions, 2,080 hours of work per year is often regarded as the amount of production attributable to one full-time position. At this rate, volunteers provided the equivalent labor of 13.5 full-time positions.

A second volunteer program with ties to the county is provided through a nonprofit group called Volunteer Connection. While its name may be new, many of the generous volunteers associated with the program have been active in the county for years. The program used to be known as the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). That title brought with it federal money that was used to provide administrative support for the hundreds of volunteers that worked in nursing homes and similar nonprofit agencies throughout Walworth County.

Unfortunately, in 2010, the group lost its RSVP name and funding. Rather than "folding its tent," the organization changed its name to Volunteer Connection and incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation. Patti O'Brien currently serves as its executive director. Volunteer Connection shares office space with the county's own volunteer program at the Government Center, creating a sort of one-stop shop for volunteers.

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To help the organization get back on its feet, the County Board provided Volunteer Connection with an emergency appropriation of $6,000 last summer and provided the group with a $10,000 grant this year. Preferring to look at the glass as half-full, the organization pointed out that one of the benefits of the loss of federal sponsorship is that volunteers of any age are now free to participate in Volunteer Connection. RSVP had been limited to volunteers 55 years and older.

Of course, the county's own program and Volunteer Connection aren't the only source of volunteers in Walworth County. I am continually amazed at the number of charitable hours logged by the many civic organizations throughout the county.

During the April County Board meeting, a number of volunteers will be recognized for their service to the county. Visitors are welcome to show appreciation for these volunteers by attending the meeting on April 19 at 6 p.m.

Those interested in volunteering to support a county program may call Colleen Lesniak at (262) 741-4223. For other volunteer opportunities, call Patti O'Brien at (262) 472-9632.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.

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