Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 11/22/2014 4:22:36 AM CST

Top Stories

Looking to help out?The Boring Store in Wicker Park is largely dependent on a network of volunteers.

Jobless discover hidden benefits of volunteering in the recession

by J.H. Freeman and Leslie Patton
Feb 24, 2009


Leslie Patton/MEDILL

Chicago's Community Resource Network has seen an increase in volunteer applications recently.

A number of Chicago’s unemployed are discovering a new calling: They're volunteering as a way to network, stay fresh and stay sane as job prospects dwindle in the deepening recession.

The Community Resource Network Inc. center in Chicago, which places volunteers in positions across the city, has seen a 25 percent boost in applications, most of which poured in during November and December.

“They make connections this way, they get experience in a field they might not be familiar with, and they feel good about themselves and feel productive,” said Community Resource Network President Kathleen Gillig.

Talia Miller, who leads a volunteer program at a nursing home through Chicago Cares Inc., an organization that creates and manages more than 200 such programs per month, has seen a growing number of people willing to work gratis.

"I notice that when I try to sign up for events they are filling up...some fill up weeks in advance and that never used to happen before," Miller said.

Miller began volunteering when she was unemployed for a three-month period and has continued to lend a free hand, although she now is an account manager at a CDW Corp. office in Chicago.

Patrick Shaffner, owner of The Boring Store in Wicker Park, has observed a similar influx.

“There has been an uptick in volunteers who have just lost their jobs or are looking for work,” Shaffner said. The Boring Store sells spy gadgets and runs a tutoring program called 826 Chicago that is heavily reliant on volunteers. The novelist Dave Eggers founded the enterprise in San Francisco.

Shaffner said that besides seeking an inspiring environment, those out-of-work who volunteer at the store have a strategic purpose as well.

“They think, this is a chance for me to do something I haven’t done and get a new experience in a field I have none in, their own little job development,” Shaffner observed.

Kevin Lynch, a 43-year-old volunteer at 826 who recently left an advertising agency, says he hopes to benefit both personally and professionally from donating his time.

“I think [volunteering] is really a skill expansion more than anything. I’ve been in advertising for about 20 years. What agencies do now is broader than what they did years ago,” Lynch said.

Christine Barrett, an acquaintance of Lynch’s and a former advertising recruiter, now helps out at a women’s shelter on the North Side. “My reason for volunteering would be to give back first and foremost, then of course to stay busy and connected,” Barrett said in an e-mail.

The economy is pummeling the professional and business services industry as January’s national unemployment rate for this group jumped to 10.4 percent from 6.4 percent a year ago, trumping the overall unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Volunteering in between jobs is not a new idea. Executive coaches and career advisors have consistently told their clients in periods where job pickings are slim—circa the recession—to approach volunteering as both a networking device and a confidence inflator.

“This approach also allows you to see that there is much to be grateful for, even if at first you don't feel this way,” said Roberta Matuson, a job search mentor and president of Human Resource Solutions Inc.

“You may make connections that you would not have made if you were sitting at home. You may actually be offered a full-time job by the organization that you are volunteering for,” Matuson said.

Martha Finney, author of “Rebound: A Proven Guide to Starting Over After Job Loss,” depicts volunteering as a way to avoid the anguish that frequently accompanies unemployment.

“Self-esteem, role in the community, personal value, all those pieces are still in place. If there is one thing that our generation can teach the next, [it’s that] intrinsic value survives any job,” Finney said.

“I think that volunteering should always be part of life’s activities,” she added. “But if you find yourself flat out of work, it’s far better to use that time to benefit someone else than to sit there shoveling chocolate in your mouth.”