Volunteering is just part of the culture in Puget Sound, and extraordinary work is being done every day by ordinary people.

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THE BEST WAY to appreciate what they bring to our world might be to imagine one in which they all just disappeared. What would happen if the countless legions of faithful volunteers simply went away?

Rather than the usual pleasant morning “hello” of a volunteer bearing a hot meal, shut-in seniors would hear the angry growl of an empty stomach. Mothers would arrive, tots in tow, at their local dispensary for diapers and baby wipes to find locked doors on dark offices. Garbage would pile up on roadsides. Public parks would shut their gates. Salmon-bearing streams would clog with debris that would snuff the life out of the next generation of one of nature’s great miracles.

Those are just the things you see. Look further: The region’s hospitals, retirement homes, child-care and elder-care facilities would slump toward the edge of chaos. Dogs and cats would be euthanized, not cuddled. And in classrooms from Bellevue to Burien, middle-school-aged kids on the edge of going either way in life would look up at the midafternoon clock and wait, wait, wait, for the tutor who for months had looked them in the eyes with a gaze honest enough to convince them: You can do this.

Nate Bell, 25, left, a tutor volunteer with Jubilee REACH, works with Odle Middle School seventh-grade student Abisac Bravo in the school library. Jubilee REACH is an organization that provides tutors for students in the Bellevue School District and connects people to vital resources. “We get to work through a lot of the things (in a student’s life) that teachers can’t get to,” says Bell, a UW pre-med student who lives in Snoqualmie. “Just being there, listening, is beneficial.” (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Nate Bell, 25, left, a tutor volunteer with Jubilee REACH, works with Odle Middle School seventh-grade student Abisac Bravo in the school library. Jubilee REACH is an organization that provides tutors for students in the Bellevue School District and connects people to vital resources. “We get to work through a lot of the things (in a student’s life) that teachers can’t get to,” says Bell, a UW pre-med student who lives in Snoqualmie. “Just being there, listening, is beneficial.” (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

More than ever, volunteers are the life force of our communities — the bonding glue between the cracks of a society increasingly defined by separation between the needy and the blessed. The totality of the work they do every day goes unseen and underappreciated by most of us — until one of these better angels steps directly into our lives, at a critical moment.

If you live in the Puget Sound region, odds are that if this hasn’t already happened, it will — just based on math.

Washington state has long been a perennial high scorer on national rankings of volunteers, both in terms of numbers of people and total hours worked. The Seattle/Tacoma/Bellevue metro area scores even higher, floating for many years in the middle of the top 10 nationally. (In the most recent national survey, in 2014, the Seattle region ranked seventh; it has ranked as high as fourth.) It’s unclear whether the recent dip is a statistical blip, or the start of a slide in volunteerism.

But volunteers already out there, working in classrooms and ditches, behind desks and food-bank counters, ask a more-pressing question: Why wouldn’t people want to pitch in? The rewards, most of them say, vastly outweigh any inconveniences, even in a time-crunched daily rat race.

To a person, they profess to be doing what they do out of an innate sense of feeling blessed, themselves, and wanting to “give back” to their broader community. But most find themselves navigating a two-way street.

Volunteer Dana Knutson visits with Savannah at the Seattle Animal Shelter, taking notes on her behavior, helping prepare her for adoption. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Volunteer Dana Knutson visits with Savannah at the Seattle Animal Shelter, taking notes on her behavior, helping prepare her for adoption. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Marnie Kern, director of investor relations for the nonprofit group Jubilee REACH, which for the past decade has successfully attached volunteer helpers and mentors to struggling pupils in the Bellevue School District, sees it all the time.

“Many of our volunteers come away saying, ‘I thought I was going to be giving something back, but I’m the one who got the most out of it.’ ”

 

SOURCES OF THE wellsprings of generosity that flow through the veins of habitual volunteers are as diverse as the people themselves.

A spirit of volunteerism often, though not always, is inherited from parents, or grows from religious affiliation. Unlike previous generations, today’s younger volunteers often were compelled — OK, maybe forced — to participate in “community service” projects in high school, but learned to love the work, and now seek it out on their own.

Lacey’s Centennial Station, run by an all-volunteer group of about 50 mostly retired, all-dedicated volunteers, was also built by volunteers in 1993 to replace an embarrassing old bus-stop-like structure in the middle of nowhere. Every day, ever since, volunteers such as Patrick Brennan, left, have met every Amtrak and Coast Starlight train that pulls in — no matter how early or late.  (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Lacey’s Centennial Station, run by an all-volunteer group of about 50 mostly retired, all-dedicated volunteers, was also built by volunteers in 1993 to replace an embarrassing old bus-stop-like structure in the middle of nowhere. Every day, ever since, volunteers such as Patrick Brennan, left, have met every Amtrak and Coast Starlight train that pulls in — no matter how early or late. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Older volunteers — Baby Boomers in their golden years, now comprising a large percentage of the local volunteer force — say they’re repaying a debt to a society that’s been good to them, but also to socialize and to keep their minds and bodies sharp.

“I like dealing with people. I’m an old geezer, and that’s part of my day,” says Arland Michel, one of dozens of volunteers, mostly retired, who meet arriving trains — all arriving trains, including the occasional tardy one that slinks in at 3 a.m. — at the quaint Centennial Station in Lacey.

Michel is 90 years old but rarely misses his twice-weekly, three-hour shift at the station, which opened in 1993 after it was built by a volunteer workforce using donated materials.

A former Eastern Washington farmer, Michel retired from a career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture at age 65. But that was two and a half decades ago, when smoking was first banned on domestic flights and the Dow Jones Average hit a staggering new high of 2,900. Retired folks these days have to map out their new lives for the longer haul.

“I sat around for a year or two and just kind of vegetated, then said, ‘This isn’t going to work,’ ” Michel recalls. “I could see that I was getting fat. I wasn’t doing the exercise, or the mental exercise, that a person should have.”

So he volunteered as a “gopher” at a local health clinic, then drove a bus for a senior center. But as a lifelong lover of trains, the Lacey resident meshed best with the Centennial Station gig. Now he’s one of a fiercely dedicated group of train-station workers who greet visitors with a smile and answer The Obvious Question — “Why did they put the Olympia train station all the way out here?” with The Obvious Answer: “It’s where the tracks are!”

He will keep doing it, he says, as long as he is able. It’s a major connection to the broader world.

Other retirees offer similar sentiments. Chuck Cassity, a retiree from the BP refinery at Cherry Point, says his belief in charitable work was burnished as a young man, during seminary training in a Midwest Augustinian order. In his previous home, Chicago, Cassity volunteered for an AIDS hotline and helped deliver food to patients. Without volunteer work, he says, “We tend to live in our own little bubbles.”

Now, as a volunteer at a Catholic charity, the work seems even more valuable to him given the freedoms — and potential isolation — of retirement. He devotes three hours a week to Hope House in Bellingham, distributing donated household goods, clothing and supplies to needy patrons.

“I just believe that those of us given a good family and a good education need to give something back,” Cassity says. “It’s something I feel strongly about doing.”

 

ONE MYSTERY ABOUT the high rate of volunteerism in the Seattle area is how it squares with the Puget Sound region’s reputation for being relatively averse to traditional churchgoing. Religious organizations are generally seen as a key component in volunteer recruitment.

One plausible theory: In the Seattle area, “We’re not necessarily heavy on organized religion, but maybe more spiritual,” says Liahann Bannerman, director of volunteer engagement for United Way of King County. “Maybe we’re more tuned in to the environment for that piece.”

Volunteers for Northwest Straits collect fish and document their habitat along beaches at Bowman Bay in Deception Pass State Park. Some volunteer coordinators believe Northwest environmental causes spur volunteerism in a way similar to organized religion, making the Seattle region a national leader in volunteer hours committed each year. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Volunteers for Northwest Straits collect fish and document their habitat along beaches at Bowman Bay in Deception Pass State Park. Some volunteer coordinators believe Northwest environmental causes spur volunteerism in a way similar to organized religion, making the Seattle region a national leader in volunteer hours committed each year. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Evidence suggests she’s right: Tens of thousands of locals give their time every year to give a boost to Mother Nature, working through an unusually rich variety of nonprofit environmental groups. Are Puget Sound’s shorelines, salmon streams, ancient forests and alpine meadows its volunteer “church?” The numbers say yes.

On a recent Friday morning, a group of about 20 hip-wadered worshippers from the non-ordained Church of Puget Sound, Clean Shorelines, gathered at Bowman Bay in Deception Pass State Park, carried a large plastic tub to the shore and did what they’ve been trained to do: unfurl a fine-meshed net about 10 yards into the water, in a loop, to conduct a “beach seine” in five separate spots, carefully recording marine life.

The work, coordinated by the nonprofit Northwest Straits Foundation, helps monitor the impact of a beach-restoration project completed here recently. It’s the sort of labor-intensive task critical to reversing a historic tide of destructive land use along Puget Sound. And it is work that simply would not be done without the community spirit of volunteers, says the foundation’s Jason Morgan.

“Monitoring is something that’s hard to find money for,” Morgan says. “We wouldn’t have the capacity, money-wise or personnel-wise, to do it.”

His group is typical of other green organizations: It has 5.5 full-time employees — backed by about 80 volunteers willing to get muddy or wet for the cause. They contributed 1,144 volunteer hours in 2015.

The blessing, Morgan believes, works both ways: “We live in a beautiful place. We can make it (volunteering) fun for them.”

A group of Washington Trails Association volunteers works on a section of a trail on Squak Mountain near Issaquah. Rebecca Lavigne, WTA’s trail program director, says newcomers to Seattle want to get outside to help out, to do something simple and fun in their nonwork time. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
A group of Washington Trails Association volunteers works on a section of a trail on Squak Mountain near Issaquah. Rebecca Lavigne, WTA’s trail program director, says newcomers to Seattle want to get outside to help out, to do something simple and fun in their nonwork time. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

On this day, Morgan’s crew is a mix of veterans, such as Chris Brown, whose scientific training in archaeology makes him an invaluable team leader, and younger faces, such as Cameron Coronado, 24, who hopes to parlay volunteer work, a second stint as an AmeriCorps worker and a bit of luck into his own career in the natural sciences.

As they pull squiggling little fish from the seine net, recording their size and species, group members enjoy the dual benefits of “green” volunteering: being outside, in one of the planet’s greatest natural settings, and participating in “citizen science” that helps preserve it.

One notable harvester of this green-giving enthusiasm, the nonprofit Washington Trails Association, breaks its own volunteer-hour record for hiking-trail maintenance every year.

This is true even in the midst of the Seattle area’s tech boom, which continues to bring tens of thousands of mostly young, urban, supposedly job-obsessed immigrants to the city. Rebecca Lavigne, WTA’s trail program director, says that contrary to conventional wisdom, the work life of newcomers seems to only fuel the desire to get outside and do something simple, fun — and tangible.

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“We find that people are really just hungry to: one, get outside, and two, do real, meaningful work,” she says.

The future looks bright for that ethic: A quarter of WTA’s volunteers are aged 10 to 18.

 

SO ESTABLISHED is the Puget Sound region’s volunteer network that a sort of hybrid category has emerged — the super-volunteer, a person who examines the already-crowded field and accepts it as a challenge to take a cause, or an adventure, one step further.

Some of them, such as Jessie Strauss, just sort of stumble into it. Retired from King County Metro after a diverse career that included teaching Spanish, raising a family, working in mental hospitals and nursing homes, and earning a master’s degree in civil engineering, Strauss was in Mexico in the late 1990s and happened upon a Habitat for Humanity project. She asked questions, went home and signed up.

Last month, she left her Northgate home and flew out of Seattle for Habitat work in India — her 38th trip abroad since first picking up a Habitat hammer in 1997. Strauss, who turns 78 this month, has become a premier organizer of Habitat trips, coordinating a diverse group of Puget Sound-area volunteers for global Habitat missions that usually last a couple weeks, and involve “mostly grunt labor” at job sites. She embarks on two or three every year.

Lynann Bradbury, here helping out at the Kwasa Centre in South Africa, which houses HIV orphans, has focused on charitable work after surviving cancer. She spends at least a month a year doing volunteer work around the globe. “It totally invigorates me,” she says. (Lynann Bradbury)
Lynann Bradbury, here helping out at the Kwasa Centre in South Africa, which houses HIV orphans, has focused on charitable work after surviving cancer. She spends at least a month a year doing volunteer work around the globe. “It totally invigorates me,” she says. (Lynann Bradbury)

The joys that come from the work are obvious to anyone who has done it, locally or abroad, she says. Volunteers work alongside family members for whom the house is being built. That human connection is worth a thousand diplomatic ventures. And volunteers build their own bonds, bordering on family connections, that they use as seed material for additional volunteer work or charity back at home.

Volunteerism is part of the culture in the Seattle area, Strauss believes — a result of liberal thinking and a caring, global perspective. But travel abroad is not the best way for everyone to contribute. Strauss’ husband, John, is highly supportive, and helps with logistics and post-trip chronicling of events. But he’s never been on the trips himself. “Building is not his thing,” Strauss says.

Editor’s note: In 2016, Pacific NW magazine will explore our world of work. In Seattle’s workplaces, one thing you can count on is change. We’ll try to help you make sense of it.

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Others get caught up in the soul-lifting habit of “giving back” through their own life-changing experiences. For Lynann Bradbury, growing up as the daughter of a Congregational minister and a Seattle public school music teacher made volunteer work as natural as family Sunday dinners. But a later series of bouts with cancer transformed her life, boosting her charitable work to a priority.

On her frequent trips abroad to help build homes and, especially, enhance the lives of girls and young women, Bradbury, 52, often thinks back to the dark place that unleashed a new inner light: a lead-walled isolation room in the oncology ward at Swedish Hospital. The treatment she received there, orally, in 2003 was so radioactive that attendants could enter the room only sparingly. After three days of what amounted to solitary confinement, nurses pointed a Geiger counter at Bradbury to determine when it was safe for her to go back out in public.

“I was burning from the inside out,” she recalls. “I was a contaminant to society. If that scenario doesn’t change you, I don’t know what would. I kind of went into bargaining mode: Get me through this, and I will be a better person. I’ll do whatever I can to help other people. I made a commitment, to God, the universe, myself, that I would spend some time every year, somewhere in the world.”

She survived. She healed. She set a goal: a month per year, more or less. And she has met it, doing volunteer work in places such as New Zealand, Tobago, Panama, India, Peru, South Africa and, most recently, Cuba.

The same spirit is applied when she is at home, volunteering as a holiday “Head Elf” for the Forgotten Children’s Fund; working with Special Olympics and the American Cancer Society; and guiding numerous projects to enhance opportunities for young women in business, especially in the tech industry.

“It totally invigorates me,” she says.

But it’s important, she adds, that the lesson of her own life-altering commitment to volunteerism not be misconstrued. Bradbury emphasizes that it shouldn’t take a crisis to push ordinary people into making extraordinary differences in the lives of others by giving freely what today is a most-precious commodity: time.

“The point of this? Anyone can do it.”