Volunteers enhance county services, quality of life

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David Bretl
Thursday, May 2, 2013

If you thought you had your hands full just getting your taxes filed on time this year, imagine what it would be like preparing 467 returns. Twelve Walworth County volunteers were able to do just that, sorting through mountains of W-2s and 1099s during this past tax season. Helping residents prepare income tax returns is just one of an increasing number of services being performed by volunteers. Hundreds of volunteers in Walworth County give generously of their time and talent in a wide variety of ways.

The county board took time at its April 16 meeting to commemorate National Volunteer Week and to applaud the efforts of 11 volunteers. Margaret “Margi” Kolar, Leslie Aronovitz and Joyce Rogan were recognized for their volunteer service in Walworth County’s elder benefits program. Meals on Wheels drivers Duane Warrenburg and Terri Kropetz were commended by the board as were John Griebel and Allisa Sikes, both of whom serve as guardians. Chuck Statz and Lanigan Elvin were recognized for their work at the Lakeland Health Care Center, while Tom Gentilli and Lesley Barg rounded out the honorees. Gentilli helps support the jail library while Barg works with a low-vision support group at the Walworth County Aging and Disabilities Resource Center.

Walworth County government actually supports two volunteer initiatives. The first effort is led by our own volunteer organizer, Colleen Lesniak. Lesniak is a county employee who is responsible for placing volunteers in county departments and programs. Last year, hundreds of volunteers logged 31,445 hours directly assisting county departments. A second volunteer program with ties to the county is provided through a nonprofit group called the Volunteer Connection Inc. That program used to be known as Retired Senior Volunteer Program. The RSVP title brought with it federal money that is used to provide administrative support for hundreds of volunteers that worked in nursing homes and similar nonprofit agencies throughout Walworth County. Unfortunately, in 2010, the group lost its RSVP affiliation and funding. Rather than disbanding and losing its loyal base of volunteers, the organization changed its name to Volunteer Connection and incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation. The county provides the group office space at the government center as well as a $10,000 annual appropriation to offset some administrative costs. Patti O’Brien currently serves as its executive director.

I recently had a chance to talk with O’Brien about Volunteer Connection. She had just pulled together some statistics for a grant that she was pursuing, and the numbers were impressive. From the period of July 2010 to December 2012, 507 volunteers coordinated through her organization provided more than 117,000 hours of service. Many of those service hours were provided to 81 different organizations, such as food pantries and non-profits; however, O’Brien coordinates services for individuals, as well.

While the loss of federal revenue created challenges for the organization, it provided at least one opportunity. RSVP rules required that volunteers be 55 years of age or older. Volunteer Connection is able to take volunteers of all ages. Of the 198 new volunteers who began serving since 2010, 79 of them were under the age of 55. When I think about volunteering my first thought is the positive impact it has on the person receiving the service. Driving a senior to a medical appointment or delivering a hot meal to someone who can no longer cook have some pretty obvious benefits. O’Brien was quick to point out, however, that there is another side to the equation. She sees, firsthand, the positive influence that service has on volunteers, particularly some of the younger people who have joined her organization in recent years.

Not that many years ago, there was a movement in county government to pare back services to only those that were required by law. As a result of tax levy caps, many counties prepared elaborate studies categorizing all of their programs as either “mandated” or “non-mandated.” According to the theory, when spending was projected to drive taxes above the cap, non-mandated programs would be cut until the levy fell beneath the state-imposed limit. For a variety of reasons, I have never been a fan of this approach. Our county’s experience with volunteers illustrates one of my concerns. A modest investment of tax dollars can leverage tens of thousands of hours of service. Cutting this appropriation, simply because it is non-mandated, is, as the expression goes, like cutting off your nose.

If you are interested in volunteering, there is no shortage of opportunities. Remember those tax returns I mentioned at the beginning of the column. Volunteer Connection will be losing three of its tax experts this year. In addition, the organization will be rolling out a new Quality of Life program to assist low income seniors and veterans with minor home repairs. If you are good with figures or with a hammer, call Patti O’Brien at (262) 472-9632. If you’re like me and not handy with either, there are still opportunities. O’Brien, as well as Colleen Lesniak, would be glad to talk with you. Lesniak can be reached at (262) 741-4223.

Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.

Last updated: 8:46 am Wednesday, July 10, 2013

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