Agencies' 'volunteer schools' train Chattanoogans on how to help

Agencies' 'volunteer schools' train Chattanoogans on how to help

April 21st, 2013 by Susan Pierce in Life Entertainment

Les Blackford, left, and Kevin Raney, two of the 176 volunteer divers at the Tennessee Aquarium, deliver a presentation to visitors. Before applying for the diving training program, divers must be scuba-certified and have made 25 dives.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

Volunteer Mike Thacker, right, talks about stingrays with Emily Messier at the Tennessee Aquarium.

Volunteer Mike Thacker, right, talks about stingrays with...

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.


Today through Saturday is National Volunteer Week. Local appreciation events include:

• "Live United" Volunteer Appreciation Banquet. Hosted by Directors of Volunteers in Agencies (DOVIA), United Way's Volunteer Center and the Chattanooga Corporate Volunteer Council. 6-8 p.m. Tuesday. Unum atrium, 1 Fountain Square.

• Chattanooga Area Food Bank. 2009 Curtain Pole Road. 9 a.m. Wednesday.

• Chattanooga Zoo Volunteer Appreciation Night. 6 p.m.Thursday. Chattanooga Zoo, 1800 McCallie Ave.


* 12,224: People who volunteered in 2012 through United Way's Volunteer Center and Senior Neighbors' Retired & Senior Volunteer Program

* 100,292: Hours they donated

* $2.1 million: Value of those 100,292 donated hours, as determined by the Independent Sector rate of $21.79 per hour

Source: United Way Volunteer Center, RSVP


The American Red Cross of Southeast Tennessee is holding its "Ready, Set, Rock & Roll Tour" during May, visiting every county it serves in search of new volunteers.

* May 1-2: Marion County, 315 Elm Ave., South Pittsburg.

* May 3-4: Grundy County, 16 Dixie Lee Ave., Monteagle.

* May 6-7: Cumberland County, 106 E. Second St., Crossville.

* May 8-9: Bledsoe County, location to be announced.

* May 10-11: Sequatchie County, 16385 Rankin Ave., Dunlap.

* May 13-14: Rhea County, 232 Fourth Ave., Dayton.

* May 15-16: Meigs County, 14816 Highway 58, Decatur.

* May 17-18: McMinn County, 1107 S. Congress Parkway, Athens.

* May 20-21: Monroe County, location to be announced.

* May 22-23: Polk County, location to be announced.

* May 24-25: Bradley County, location to be announced.

Source: Greg Waite, Red Cross community chapter executive

Since becoming a Tennessee Aquarium volunteer 18 months ago, Karen Spence has learned to prep fish food, properly clean possum cages and wrangle reptiles without flinching when she tidies up snake boxes.

She's even had a group of high school students ask her to dance with them in their "Harlem Shake" video, shot while they were touring Rivers of the World, she recalls, laughing.

Never knowing what a shift might hold is part of the fun of volunteering, the Red Bank resident says.

"When I was in college I wanted to be an animal trainer at Sea World, so this is a way to spend time in a marine environment," she says.

Spence is one of the aquarium's 650 volunteers who together donated 45,712 hours of time to the downtown attraction last year. That free manpower saved the aquarium $552,000, says Julie Piper, manager of volunteer services at the aquarium.

But before Spence -- and other aquarium volunteers -- could be called a docent or work in the facility's wet lab, she had to complete an intensive training that included two hours of educational classes on eight consecutive Tuesday nights, a background check and 90-day trial period to make sure she was a good fit with her new volunteer job.

And, as National Volunteer Week kicks off today, the aquarium is not the only local organization that requires its volunteers to go to school. The aquarium, the American Red Cross of Southeast Tennessee and Contact of Southeast Tennessee are among several businesses and nonprofits that require multiple hours of volunteer training and education.

These "volunteer schools," so to speak, not only teach participants the basic tenets of an agency and the assistance it offers, but they also help develop people skills for interacting with clients, show how to use available social services and even teach boundaries in how much assistance a volunteer may give.

Kelley Nave, United Way director of public relations, says longer training offers another often-unseen perk.

"Most volunteers want to volunteer quickly, so training doesn't necessarily seem that attractive to them," she says. "However, when people are volunteering because they want to have a new experience or learn a new skill set, then the longer training can actually be very attractive and it can be part of the draw."

Increasing importance

Schild Grant, volunteer services coordinator at Siskin Children's Institute and president of the local chapter of Directors of Volunteers in Agencies, says the importance of volunteers has increased in recent years.

"The economy has struggled. Some donors have found it necessary to cut back. We've been faced with multiple natural disasters," he says. "At the same time, the Chattanooga community's needs, which nonprofits work to deal with, have been increasing.

"The generous gifts of time that volunteers make keep valuable programs running in the face of budget cuts that every Chattanooga nonprofit has faced."

Emilia Pastina Jones, with Erlanger Health System's Volunteer Services, says training can range from one to nine hours, depending on the position. The system has about 300 volunteers serving in 70 hospital departments, she says.

"Our volunteers are often the first smiling, comforting face people see when they are here as a patient or visiting a loved one," she says. "Last year, Erlanger Health System volunteers gave more than 50,000 hours of time."

Becoming an Erlanger volunteer includes health screenings, background checks and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) training, because "we feel strongly it is our priority to protect our patients and visitors," Jones says.

At Contact, a local crisis hotline, volunteers are training for six hours over four days, then the volunteers are observed while doing their jobs, says Executive Director Gary Paul.

"We deal with a lot of different issues when people are in crisis, whether it's domestic violence, drug addiction, financial distress or even eating disorders," he says. "We'll do monthly training classes on different topics. We bring in experts from around the area to discuss the basics of these problems and talk about resources available."

Some groups try to reduce training time, making it as quick as possible. The decision to volunteer is often an impulsive choice, say some nonprofit directors, so they capitalize on the spontaneity of these decisions with one-day crash courses.

"Our volunteer training is one day and they have to have a flu shot, TB test, background check and go through privacy training," says Jane Kaylor, executive director of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Chattanooga.

The house's 536 volunteers saved that agency more than a half-million dollars in staffing costs last year, she says.

John Hitchens, emergency services director for American Red Cross of Southeast Tennessee, says when new volunteers come onboard, they go through a background check then a four-hour training done in one day.

"From there, we try to match them with what they want to do and they take classes between four and 16 hours in their field," he says. "Once in the field, we continue to have regular meetings and provide additional training."

Volunteer experiences

Bob Scire is one of 176 divers who volunteer for the Tennessee Aquarium, many of whom drive one to two hours to come in for their work shift, he says.

"We have one from Nashville, one from Newnan, Ga., one from Kentucky, some from Huntsville, Knoxville and more," he says. "We have to have six divers a day, every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas."

Aquarium divers must already be scuba certified and have made 25 dives before applying for a volunteer position, but Scire says there is still a training program for show divers.

One diver training is held each year in January, Piper says, and divers must take CPR, first aid and oxygen provider certifications, a written test and a swim skills test.

For Scire, who's retired, "the kids are the best part of the whole thing."

"Their reactions to the divers range from absolutely comical to panic-stricken (when they see the divers in the shark tank)," he says.

While some volunteer work is relatively stationary -- you go to a building and work there, whether diving in a tank, leading tours or answering phones -- other organizations require travel.

"I went to Superstorm Sandy for two weeks and I just got back from storms in Monroe County," says Red Cross volunteer Paula Coll. "I had training for everything I do with the Red Cross. We train .... and then train some more."

After taking "a plethora of training classes to get acclimated within the Red Cross and a better understanding of clients' needs," Red Cross Disaster Action Team member Michael Puryear says he keeps two suitcases packed, ready to leave at Mother Nature's whim. But he says his first emergency call was "virtually in my backyard" -- the April 2011 tornadoes.

"Being a green volunteer, I didn't have an inkling of what I was about to see. Just observing the vast area of devastation in a familiar place made me numb," he says. "There was a client we encountered who had lost everything. ... As I approached her to introduce myself, she said nothing, just grabbed me, held me as tight as I've ever been held and started crying. We stood there for at least 10 minutes. I wept with her. I'll never forget it."

Keeping calm in periods of extreme stress is one of the things that Red Cross volunteers are schooled on, Coll says.

"You hit the road, driving for miles to get to people you don't even know. You go into their neighborhoods not knowing what you will see. You don't gasp, you don't show a look of shock at the sights you are seeing," she says.

"There is no paycheck to pick up, nor would you want one, because there is not enough money in the world for when you finally get to your own bed when the job is done and lay down knowing people are no longer alone," she says.

Contact staff writer Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfree or 423-757-6284.