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A Burning Spirit Of Volunteering

Twenty-one years ago, Buddy Steele and his family got involved in volunteer firefighting the hard way.

“We’d been away from home that day,” Steele recalls. “There were about 8 or so inches of snow on the ground and my wife and I had taken our little daughter to play in it. When we came back home, our trailer was completely engulfed in flames.” By the time local volunteer firefighters arrived, it was too late.

“We lost everything,” Steele says quietly, “except our lives.” But instead of getting mad, Steele sympathized with the Richardsville firefighters.

“It seemed like they had such a hard time-the weather was so bad and they only had two fire trucks. After our fire, I felt like I had to do something to help people. I wanted to learn, so I got involved.” Since that 1978 fire, Steele has become a skilled firefighter and a dedicated promoter of the spirit of volunteering in his community.

Today, the Richardsville Volunteer Fire Department, in Warren County, has three stations and a fourth under construction. It owns 13 vehicles and averages 500 runs a year in its 126-square-mile service area. More than 40 trained volunteers are ready to answer alarms around the clock.

“Recruiting new firefighters has been a big thing for us,” Steele explains. “We have an Explorer program chartered through the Boy Scouts of America for middle and high school boys and girls…They can learn about all sorts of emergency services and volunteerism firsthand. They can even start training, so that when they turn 18 they’ll have enough credited hours to become a part of the fire department.”

While farmers were once the mainstay of the volunteer ranks in Richardsville, changes in this once rural area mean that many potential volunteers now work at jobs away from home. As retail manager for a camping supply company, Steele says, “Most of the time I can drop my work and go. We’re very fortunate here in Richardsville that so many employers understand our community’s needs.”

In addition to emergency calls, Steele also usually spends an additional hour or two a day with training, recruiting, or administrative paperwork.

“Until I really got into volunteering,” Steele says, “I didn’t know how important it would become. Getting out and helping someone makes me feel good. And I’ve noticed that the enthusiasm that volunteers have is good for family life.” Steele’s wife, Delores, volunteered during the early 1980s, and now their three children are becoming active in firefighting.

“Tammy, our younger daughter, helps out with fund raising,” Delores Steele says. “Right now she enjoys the service aspect and will help out with anything away from a fire scene. Our son, Jeremy, who’s a senior in high school, has been in the Explorer program and often helps at the scene of field fires. But our older daughter, Casey Larea, is the one who’s most active.”

Twenty-three-year-old Casey Larea (who works for a pediatric center in Bowling Green) has completed her emergency medical technician training and serves as the fire prevention and medical officer for the Richardsville Volunteer Fire Department. She presents the “Learn Not to Burn” fire safety program for
kindergarten through third grade in Warren County schools.

Over the years she’s taken some good-natured teasing about her intense involvement, but she doesn’t mind. She smiles and says, “I didn’t get into volunteer firefighting just because I’m my father’s daughter. I’m in it to help people and save lives.”

Giving Back to the Community-AmeriCorps Volunteers Help Students Become Tutors

AmeriCorps volunteers Kris Showen and Kim Gipson help students help other students.

Showen explains: “Eighth-grade students from West Jessamine Middle School here in Nicholasville become reading coaches for elementary school students.”

And Gipson finishes the story: “I’m working with the librarian and classroom teachers at Rosenwald-Dunbar Elementary right next door to find second-graders who need help with their reading skills.
The middle-schoolers come over here to read with the elementary students each day.” Gipson notes that as the younger students’ skills improve, so do the older students’ abilities-and their interest in reading as something fun and worthwhile.

Gipson and Showen point out that such community involvement among various age groups is already a tradition in Jessamine County. As response to their program shows, even though the county’s population has almost doubled during the last 10 years, it’s still the kind of place where parents and children get involved.

“Out of 215 eighth-graders, over 70 students took home applications to become reading tutors during our kickoff drive,” Showen says. Gipson adds that in the elementary school, teachers have come to her to help design service projects for the fifth-graders, who are also eager to help.

AmeriCorps (a national service initiative begun in 1993) offers its full-time volunteer members a small living allowance (roughly equal to the minimum wage) and a separate financial award that can be used either to pay off an existing student loan or pay new educational fees in return for at least 1,700 hours of service within a 12-month period. But the modest financial benefit isn’t the main attraction for either Showen or Gipson.

Gipson, who had previously worked for another literacy program, says, “Community service is part of my personal philosophy. I graduated from Eastern Kentucky University, and I firmly believe in giving back to the community that’s given me so much.”

Showen, a recent graduate of Campbellsville University, worked as a paid computer lab assistant at the middle school last year, but jumped at the chance to become a member of AmeriCorps. “I wanted to do something besides just show up for work, do the job, and get a paycheck,” he says. “I wanted work that I could really invest myself in. The great thing about being an AmeriCorps volunteer is that it raises your level of awareness of what’s going on around us. Instead of just talking about things, we can really do something.”-Nancy S. Grant

Volunteerism Checklist

Throughout Kentucky there are countless jobs waiting for the right person. Volunteer coordinators can match up the right person with the right job, and knowing your own interests and strengths will help you choose a satisfying project. Here are a few things to think about.

· How people-oriented are you? Would you enjoy working with youngsters, teenagers, adults, or senior citizens? Don’t assume that because you’re in one age group you should automatically work with folks the same age; many senior citizens are finding it invigorating to work with kids younger than their own grandchildren.

· How much time do you really have to offer? Do you have an hour a week, or several hours a day to spend on your volunteer job? Are you available mornings, afternoons, evenings, or only on weekends? Check with your family or co-workers to see if you’re being realistic. Do you want to help in emergencies only, or can you offer help on a regular basis?

· Where would you like to do your volunteer work? Would you like to work in your own home? Many volunteer groups need people to make phone calls, prepare materials for mailing, or do computer work that can easily be done at home. Would you prefer to work outdoors, in a hospital, or in a school?

· What skills do you have to offer? Do you have career experience or a special skill that you want to share with others? Volunteers with an in-depth knowledge of accounting, building trades, or gardening often choose volunteer jobs that are similar to their paying work or a lifelong hobby. Would you prefer to learn a new skill to share with others?

· Is money a factor? Everything else is changing these days, why not the tradition that you don’t get paid for volunteer work? Many businesses are getting involved in charitable work within their communities and encourage employees to volunteer. If you’re working at a paying job, ask your employer if you qualify for any special programs, such as reimbursement for travel or education expenses that you incur while learning to do your volunteer job. If you need to take time off from work to attend special seminars or activities involving your volunteer work, will your employer pay part or all of your wages or salary while you’re away from your regular job?

Recently, a new form of volunteer work has emerged that combines the traditional ideas of service to those in need with the kinds of benefits usually associated with work in the business world. The Kentucky versions of these national service projects include modest financial rewards, such as living allowances, credits for child care, medical insurance, student loan repayments, or tuition credits.

The Kentucky Commission on Community Volunteerism and Service can provide more information on programs with these kinds of benefits (see “Where to find volunteer info” box, page 22). Three of the most well-known national programs with strong Kentucky bases are AmeriCorps (the domestic Peace Corps), Learn and Serve America (a program for students), and the National Senior Service Corps (which includes the Foster Grandparent program).-Nancy S. Grant

Where to Find Volunteer Info

Statewide: To find out more about statewide volunteer programs, contact the Kentucky
Commission on Community Volunteerism and Service at (800) 239-7404, or use a computer
to visit their website at http://volunteerky.state.ky.us
or e-mail kccvs@mail.state.ky.us.

Locally: Volunteer help is needed at several places in your own hometown.
Some of the places you could contact locally about volunteering are churches,
the United Way, libraries, schools, volunteer fire departments, food and housing
shelters, and the Red Cross.

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