"The wise man does not lay up treasure. The more he gives to others, the more he has for his own." Chinese proverb, c. 600 B.C.
Maris Stella Brizuela uses her ability to speak Spanish and her background in psychology three evenings each week as a counselor at Andromeda, a mental health center in Washington for Spanish-speaking persons.
Lisa Goode, a student at Notre Dame Academy, worked for two hours each Wednesday for 10 weeks distributing food at Bread for the City as part of her senior class project in social justice.
Elizabeth and George Graeber serve as "driver and jumper" one afternoon each week for a Meals on Wheels program.
They were able to find an appropriate position -- based on their skills, time available and personal goals in serving the community -- through the Volunteer Clearinghouse of the District of Columbia.
The clearinghouse office in the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church is a sparsely furnished room three flights up that is serviced by an ancient, creaky elevator. It is the only agency in the District that matches the needs of nonprofit organizations with the skills and interests of volunteers.
The clearinghouse was founded in 1976 by the ad hoc committee of the Volunteer Resource Conference, a group of 450 coordinators of volunteers in the Washington area. The clearinghouse has a budget of about $60,000 a year, and is funded by United Way, foundation grants and private contributions. It has three full-time staff members and several volunteer office workers.
Last year the clearinghouse matched 1,600 volunteers with available positions at 506 agencies. These agencies included the Smithsonian Institution, which needs 2,000 volunteers to maintain its public programs, and the Washington Cathedral, which needs 900 volunteers, according to Ruth Sloate, executive director of the clearinghouse.
The image of a little old blue-haired lady playing hostess at an afternoon tea for an obscure charity is a thing of the past.
Eighty-four percent of the volunteers are under age 40 and 38 percent have a graduate degree.Forty-nine percent are black and 47 percent are white.
Brizuela, a native of Paraguay, lives in Georgetown and has been in the United States on a diplomatic visa for 3 1/2 years. She says that in addition to helping others, there are two reasons she works as a volunteer.
Without a green card (declaring her a legal resident alien) she is unable to get a job as a psychologist. She feels grateful just to "work in my field." She also thinks that demonstrating her abilities might enhance her chances of obtaining a green card.
So Brizuela, who works in the petroleum office of the Venezuelan Embassy, devotes six to 10 hours a week in the Dupont Circle office of Andromeda Hispano Mental Health Center. She conducts a group session one evening a week on drug abuse and also counsels individual clients (who pay the health center a fee based on annual income).
"When I got her application, I knew just where to send her," says clearinghouse director Sloate. "One of the skills required at Andromeda is a fluency in Spanish. A degree in psychology was a bonus."
"I have other friends in the same situation," says Brizuela, who speaks five languages. "You can't get a green card without a contract in your field, and it's hard. We all work in other jobs. But I feel better volunteering in my profession."
For many people, hours spent in a volunteer position can provide a useful link to a new or different profession.Students, housewives or divorced women entering the job market after years at home can benefit by donating time in a specific field. Federal Government Standard Form 171 includes a note that in cases in which "experience is a factor, credit will be granted for any pertinent religious, civil, welfare, service and organizational activity which you have performed either with or without compensation."
At Notre Dame Academy, the students did volunteer work as part of a senior class project in social justice, and had an opportunity to work in areas they plan to study in college.
Applications were sent to the clearinghouse, and interviews with each student were arranged. Then, every Wednesday for 10 weeks, the students went to work. An aspiring lawyer worked in a legal aid office, an ambitious electronic journalist put in hours at National Public Radio.
Goode, of Northwest, wants to go into "some kind of social work, maybe education." She served at the Thomas Circle headquarters of Board for the City, a center that provides food and clothing to the needy.
"Taking social justice study out of the classroom seemed logical to me," said Goode. "Instead of talking about it, we did it. The only thing that bothered me was seeing the number of people who needed it (food and clothing) so much."
In addition to coordinating senior class projects for any school that requests it, the clearinghouse every spring puts out the Directory of Volunteer Opportunities for Youth and distributes it to all schools, libraries and recreation centers in the District. The directory lists summer opportunities that will enable students to explore career goals.
The clearinghouse also serves as a link to the D.C. Superior Court for those who have been sentenced to alternative service. "Essentially we use it as an alternative form of sentencing.Instead of regular probation, the judge orders the person to complete a certain number of hours serving the community," says Kevin Fidgeon, assistant director of special projects at the court. In each case, the agency is advised of the volunteer's offense, which 90 percent of the time is a misdemeanor such as drunken driving, Fidgeon says.
The Graebers are retired and work as a team for Meals on Wheels, a program sponsored by an ecumenical religious organization, that provides one hot meal and one cold meal a day to persons who for various reasons (health, age, physical limitations) are unable to leave their homes.
"We started out as relief, just filling in for others who couldn't drive that day," says Graeber. "But once we started doing it, we were hooked."
So on most Fridays the Graebers, who live in Northwest, go to the National Presbyterian Church on Nebraska Avenue at about 11 a.m. They help sort the boxes of food and then deliver the meals on a route that extends about 10 miles and takes about an hour-and-a-half to cover. One person drives and the other takes the food to the door.
"We deliver to all kinds of people (who pay a minimum amount for this service), from the well-off -- even a former ambassador -- to the very poor," he adds. "What we do is a very small contribution. Others spend hours. It's a very satisfying serving other people."