Reaching Out Beyond Mitzvah Days

I read with interest a recent Boston Globe article that explored issues regarding the burden that some non-profits experience when well-meaning volunteers donate time that, well, may not be needed. The article made me pause to reflect on the work that JCRC does in the community. Are our volunteers having the impact we hope for?

To address my concern I sought out leaders from our ReachOut! program to hear about their experience and their thoughts about the article. 

“Through ReachOut!, we've served approximately 8,000 meals to members of our community at the First Parish soup kitchen in Cambridge. We offer the dignity of serving a meal at a dinner table to individuals who may be ignored the rest of the week,” said Jonathan Sclarsic, a member of the ReachOut! Steering Committee and a volunteer for over 3 years. “Food insecurity is a real issue in our community, one that we often don't notice. ReachOut! not only makes a real difference by serving meals, but helps bring to light the challenges of hunger and homelessness.”

Jonathan’s comment belies the conventional wisdom about young adults — that they are too busy focusing on their burgeoning careers and on their social lives to think about volunteering.  People will tell you that the most you can hope for is for them to volunteer very sporadically, maybe participate in an annual community service event or as we often call them in the Jewish community, “mitzvah days.”

But in fact, that has not been our experience. Since ReachOut!’s inception, the leaders who envisioned and ultimately designed and implemented the program were clear about the experience they wanted to offer their peers who volunteer – and the service they wanted to provide the community. They understood that their service would have meaning to them and impact on the ground, only if it were ongoing and occurred within the context of interpersonal relationships. So together, we created a program of weekly volunteering in small groups, through 9 week cycles that occur twice a year.

As a result, we developed strong partnerships with community based nonprofits, and depend on their expertise to craft service experiences that are not only fulfilling for our volunteers but also respond to real need on the ground. We limit the number of volunteers to ensure that they are truly needed. And we build a sense of community among our volunteers, through Shabbat dinners and opportunities to reflect together on their service experience.

Five years into it, the program is continuing to build steam – reaching out to new partners, attracting new volunteers, and developing new leaders. In fact, our volunteers have asked for more service opportunities as they continually raise the bar on their commitment. The cycles have grown to 12 weeks, and this year for the first time, they’re adding a summer cycle – since community needs don’t go on hiatus and volunteers don’t want a break during the summer months!

Here is a list of where our ReachOut! volunteers are currently serving:

Hunger and Homelessness
Senior Connections
Youth Connections
Adult Education

To learn more about ReachOut! for yourself or for a young adult in your life, visit http://bitly.com/reachout15

Shabbat Shalom,
Jeremy