Volunteering looks different in a pandemic

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — Over the last year, nonprofit organizations on the island have had to adjust their volunteering practices in response to the pandemic.  

Many organizations lost a large percentage of their volunteers, many of whom were in the virus’s more vulnerable age categories. Other organizations saw a surge in volunteerism from people who were either out of work or working from home and had more time to offer their services. And some other organizations have curbed activities during the pandemic and do not need as many volunteers as they used to.  

Open Table MDI in Bar Harbor and the Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor both offer free food for people in the community. Both organizations have continued to operate during the pandemic, and both have seen an increased need for their services over the past year. They rely on volunteers. 

“Serving dinner to 400 people each week, as well as prepping food boxes for 150 people, is a big job,” said Open Table MDI co-founder Puranjot Kaur. “We simply could not do what we do without the help of volunteers. 

“We had just as many volunteer slots available, if not more, due to the increase in program needs,” said Kaur, adding they shifted procedures to keep all volunteers and the community safe, including proper distancing, contact tracing and volunteer health screening before shifts.  

The Common Good offers food baskets and soup for pickup or delivery. An increase in recipients and deliveries has resulted in an increased need for drivers who are able to lift heavy boxes of food.  

“Our numbers have gone up 150 percent since COVID started,” said Executive Director Lauri Ward. “We’ve lost about 70 percent of our volunteer staff. Our delivery drivers keep adding to their route. We have about 10 drivers now and before we only had five.” 

While there is a consistent volunteer staff of about six people in Common Good’s kitchen to prepare meals, there are less folks committing to a certain number of hours per week. More are offering to help with immediate needs such as unloading a delivery truck.  

When its popover program begins on June 18, Common Good will need at least five volunteers to keep running through the season. “To be honest, it’s almost a fulltime job, when we’re open, to make coffee all day,” said Ward.  

In addition to making coffee, there is a need for serving food, cleaning tables, filling small containers with butter and jam and doing work in the kitchen. 

“Hopefully we can keep rolling along and keep doing the good work for our community, Ward said.
Like many nonprofits, Island Connections is always looking for volunteersand the pandemic has not led to a shortage of volunteers to drive seniors and people with disabilities to medical appointments and to do grocery shopping for them.  

“We had some volunteers take themselves off the road because they had some underlying health conditions,” said Doreen Willett, executive director of Island Connections. “But in March and April last year, we had brought on about 16 new drivers. People really came forward and wanted to help out in any way they could.”  

Island Connections is now aslo helping with the MDI Food Access Project, a collaboration of Open Table, the Bar Harbor Food Pantry, College of the Atlantic, Beech Hill Farm and Healthy Acadia.  

“We now do grocery shopping for people rather than take them to the store,” Willett said. “Volunteers do the shopping and volunteers do the driving. We have been really blessed with a lot of good volunteers, but we are always needing to replace volunteers who go away for a while or stop volunteering for one reason or another.”  

Volunteers are also an essential part of Mount Desert Island Hospital, though many volunteer activities were put on hold during the pandemic. During a typical year, the hospital’s volunteers perform a wide variety of services that range from greeting patients and assisting with clerical work to helping out in the cafeteria. According to the hospital’s Public Affairs Officer Oka Hutchins, “We have a devoted group of volunteers waiting to resume these activities when pandemic precautions begin to ease. We’re also lucky to have retired clinical professionals lend their time and talents to us regularly.”  

The hospital is currently looking for volunteers to help with COVID-19 vaccination clinics.  

Acadia National Park also uses volunteers. The park had 1,315 individual volunteers last year, which was down from 2,880 of the year before.  

“We love having volunteers, but we are still not at a place where we can welcome very many new folks right now,” said Dianna Sproul, the park’s volunteer coordinator. “Most of the positions are already filled for this season.”  

The park’s campgrounds were not open last year, but will be this year, so some volunteers will serve as campground hosts. “They help provide information to campers and answer questions,” Sproul said. “They also do rounds through the grounds, making sure people are adhering to the campground policies. Sometimes they help clean the campsites.”  

Waldron’s Warriors is a group of local volunteers who hike the trails throughout the season and repair cairns that have been added to or dismantled.  

Sproul said more than half of the park’s volunteers are only here seasonally.  

The Wild Gardens of Acadia volunteer program, a partnership with Friends of Acadia, relies on volunteers to tend the gardens. Last year, a one-way path through the gardens was created and the number of people in the gardens at any one time was regulatedVolunteers also gave visitors an orientation to the gardens, which they will continue to do this year.  

Operation of the Mount Desert YMCA is dependent on volunteers, but many of its programs have been on hold during the pandemic. As more people are vaccinated and guidelines are becoming more relaxed, the organization is gearing up for the summer season.  

 “Our need for volunteers is increasing.” said Tommy Parham, executive director of the YMCA. “Our special events, such as our half marathons in the spring and fall that were postponed last year, are very volunteer dependent and we are recruiting for those events now. Our goal is to bring back recreational youth sports and other programming where adult volunteers, such as coaches, are critical to the program’s success.” 

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