Meals on Wheels free clip art

Meals on Wheels is one of the county programs in Walworth County that have come to rely on volunteers. (Contributed photo/Regional News)

Walworth County is celebrating National Volunteer Week this month. While the week is officially designated April 7-13, activities will be taking place all month to recognize the many volunteers who give their time and talent to improve the quality of life in our county.

Each year, our county board takes time at its April meeting to recognize a number of volunteers for their extraordinary efforts in supporting county programs. This year, rather than recognizing individuals, the board will thank six organizations whose members support our mission.

This year’s honorees include the Walworth County Literacy Council, Elkhorn Kiwanis, ABATE of Wisconsin, Holton Manor, Lakeland School and VIP Services.

The folks at Holton Manor and Kiwanis consistently provide drivers for our Meals on Wheels program. Volunteers from the Literacy Council teach reading, writing and math skills to jail inmates. Studies have shown that inmates who learn these skills are significantly less likely to re-offend in the future. ABATE of Wisconsin is a motorcycle rights and safety organization. Its members collect thousands of toys and other gifts each year to support our Holiday Care program. Volunteers from Lakeland School and VIP Services help residents of our Lakeland Health Care Center in a variety of ways.

As government budgets have become tighter over the years, I have come to appreciate the important role that volunteers play in delivering services to the public. The county’s volunteer effort is led by our Volunteer Services Coordinator Colleen Lesniak.

Colleen is a county employee who is responsible for placing volunteers in county departments and programs. Chief among her duties is promoting awareness of the importance of volunteerism, both among the public and within the county organization.

The first half of her charge is pretty straightforward; the public needs to be aware of the types of volunteer opportunities that are available. The second aspect of creating awareness, challenging county managers to think of ways in which volunteers can serve their programs, has evolved over time.

Some county departments were already sold on the idea. Our nursing home and special needs school have long histories of engaging volunteers; other departments were far less familiar with the power of volunteers. Persuaded by Colleen’s efforts and the excellent results obtained by our managers, volunteers now serve in many county departments.

Meals on Wheels and our senior dining centers are two of the largest beneficiaries of volunteer service. In 2018, 44 volunteers logged 4,750 hours serving meals at the county’s seven dining centers. The statistics for the county’s home-delivered meal service (Meals on Wheels) are equally impressive. This past year, 441 volunteers spent 5,064 hours delivering meals.

There are many reasons why volunteers donate their time. In some cases, retired folks like to stay active promoting programs they support or keeping their work skills sharp. Unemployed workers will occasionally join our mix of volunteers to keep their resumes current and contribute to the community while they look for employment.

Finally, interns from the two four-year universities in the county, UW-Whitewater and George Williams, as well as students from Gateway Technical College and UW-Madison, learn valuable lessons on the job to supplement their classroom work.

In addition to matching volunteers to appropriate opportunities, Colleen is responsible for ensuring that background checks are conducted on prospective volunteers, and for maintaining statistics regarding the program.

Our county’s volunteer effort really began to take off in 2009. In that year’s budget, Colleen’s position, which was part-time and dedicated solely to the nursing home, was upgraded to full-time status and given a countywide mission. Until this year, Colleen shared office space with me at the Government Center in Elkhorn so I had a first-hand view of just how busy she is.

The numbers confirm the success of the program. In 2018, 1,108 volunteers as well as 45 interns served county programs. These volunteers provided 34,698 hours of service. All of these hours save tax dollars. For planning purposes, we typically use the figure of 2,080 hours per year when we budget for new paid positions. At that rate, volunteers offset the need to hire nearly 17 full-time equivalent employees.

The national organization Independent Sector recently calculated the average value of a volunteer’s time at $24.69 per hour. By that measure, the county received $856,693 worth of service.

Colleen’s program is not the only volunteer initiative associated with the county. Hundreds more volunteers support 4-H and UW-Extension. Finally, Volunteer Connection, a nonprofit organization, places folks in volunteer positions in programs outside of county government.

The county is always looking for volunteers. In addition to Meals on Wheels drivers, who are greatly appreciated, Colleen reminded me of a number of upcoming opportunities. Volunteers are needed to help clean up Price Park on April 26, White River County Park on May 3 and Natureland Park on May 17. Fall park cleanup days will be held as follows: White River County Park, Oct. 12; Price Park, Oct. 26; and Natureland Park, Nov. 8. All park cleanup days are scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon.

Colleen also mentioned that she is looking for volunteers to help out at Lakeland School Fest, which will be held on May 11. If you are interested in volunteering to support a county program, call Colleen at 262-741-4223.

David Bretl is county administrator for Walworth County. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.