Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2005 | People

Lean On Me

By Kathryn Howe
At the Volunteer Iowa! telethon headquarters, phones rang off the hook.

During the public television broadcast earlier this year, the program’s hosts asked citizens to pledge the number of volunteer hours they promised to fulfill in 2005. Callers responded in force with an impressive 1.5 million hours.

That’s not surprising from a state ranked third in the nation (behind only Utah and Nebraska) for its percentage of people 16 and older who donate their time and talents to benefit others. The national average is 28.8 percent, while 40.3 percent of Iowans in this age bracket volunteer.

“Iowans are known for helping their neighbors,” says Jody Benz, outreach and communications director for the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service, which sponsors the annual telethon. “People realize we’ve got to look out for each other.”

Beginning the 2005 academic year, University of Iowa President David Skorton cast the spotlight on volunteerism, asking members of the university community to rise to new levels of public engagement. Already, President Skorton has approved more than $100,000 in grants for 15 projects that seek to enhance the university’s service contribution—from an effort to train and place UI students on the boards of some of the state’s nearly 12,000 charitable nonprofit organizations to a proposal that will ensure more vulnerable babies in Iowa receive lifesaving breast milk.

Volunteerism is more than an Iowa characteristic, says Willard “Sandy” Boyd, UI president emeritus and co-director of the university’s Nonprofit Resource Center: it’s an American tradition.

Americans have a strong historical commitment to the ethic of volunteerism, says Boyd, pointing out that this country was built on the backs of citizens devoted to securing a better life not only for themselves, but for the larger community. “Others give meaning to life,” he says. “We get enormous psychic rewards from volunteering.”

In fact, Benz says that research indicates older people in particular receive health benefits such as lower blood pressure from performing good works.

The country benefits, too. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 64.5 million Americans volunteered at least once between September 2003 and September 2004, spending an average of 52 hours on goodwill pursuits. With a volunteer hour valued at $17.55, helping others had a $272 billion impact on the nation’s economy.