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Long Island Volunteer Center urges activism

Girl Scouts have helped collect donations for the

Girl Scouts have helped collect donations for the Prom Boutique program that the Long Island Volunteer Center started more than 18 years ago. Credit: Nancy Borowick

Surveys indicate that most people are willing to volunteer their time and skills if asked, so the Long Island Volunteer Center is doing just that.

And if once isn't enough, officials will ask twice, even three or four times. They've got incentive.

"We are charged with adding more than 50,000 volunteers per year over the next three years," said Diana O'Neill, executive director.

The Hempstead center's goal is to recruit 51,109 volunteers as part of a statewide recruitment campaign for the state Commission on National and Community Service that aims to recruit 1 million volunteers over three years.

They've made a dent. As of last month, O'Neill said, a commission survey showed that more than 23,000 people had signed up on Long Island; statewide, the number was 50,000.

The volunteer center is designated a regional center and is one of 10 statewide that partner with the Red Cross, Head Start, Long Island Cares and other community-based organizations to help train volunteer coordinators.

O'Neill, 56, who has been with the center since 1997, said that as volunteers step forward she is confident even more are out there and that the next step is matching them with the right opportunity. Getting the word out electronically, via Facebook and the center's website, is key to reaching people, too.


Attracting new volunteers

The push for new volunteers attracted John Tochterman, 53, of Hauppauge, a retail banker who will soon start a new job with the Teachers Federal Credit Union. He worked with about 15 others for a day this past spring cleaning the grounds at a veterans' group home in Shirley, clearing downed limbs and moving shrubs so the residents could plant a vegetable garden, while other volunteers planted flowers.

"It was really a nice experience," said Tochterman, who has also volunteered with the Harry Chapin Food Bank. "Some of the veterans were there and it was nice to engage with them as well. My dad was a veteran and I was happy to help."

The center is no stranger to being on the receiving end of help. It was founded in 1992 by the late Joan Imhof, who had been director of volunteer services for Nassau County. Since 1999, the law firm of White, Cirrito & Nally Llp has donated office space to the nonprofit. Long Islanders can drop off things there, and the center's volunteers collect messages and have meetings at the office. Before that, the center operated out of space the Red Cross donated.

The center debuted a redesigned website -- -- in December in its quest to be "a great resource and referral for all things volunteer," O'Neill said. Potential volunteers can check under the "Find An Opportunity" header to see what agencies need help and where their skills can be put to the most use.

The site asks visitors to register so they can get notifications of volunteer opportunities that match their interests, and software lets the center track volunteer matches electronically.

The home page also features links to current initiatives. Right now, school supplies are needed, so the site lists links to agencies collecting backpacks and other supplies for those who may want to donate. There's also a notice about an upcoming blood drive that's part of the National Day of Service and Remembrance of 9/11, from 2 to 8 p.m. Sept. 10, at the Nassau County Firefighters Museum in Garden City.

Volunteer Anna Lyons, who is in her 50s and has been with the center since the early 1990s, is the director for special projects. Besides keeping the Web page updated, she also works with nonprofits to make sure their volunteer opportunities are listed in the pull-down menu.

The center is involved in several longstanding volunteer efforts, including the Long Island Prom Boutique, which helps outfit girls for proms; the Long Island Volunteer Hall of Fame; and it helps organize volunteers to sort food collected during the letter carriers' annual spring "Stamp Out Hunger" food drive.


An opportunity for everyone

With more than 250 agencies on the Long Island Volunteer Center's list, and generally at least one opportunity per agency, Lyons said, there are lots of opportunities for people looking to help their fellow Long Islanders. They range from helping paint a nonprofit's office to sorting food donations, making phone calls, landscaping or helping in the office.The organization connects people with an agency that handles the volunteer's passion, be it helping animals or working with at-risk youth, and the volunteer can get any training needed and then work directly with that agency.

To deal with the influx of volunteers, the center also is helping train agencies and nonprofits in how to best use and manage their volunteers.

"Can you imagine if we didn't do that? It would be like Lucy and the chocolates -- what do you do with them coming down the pike?" O'Neill said, referring to the episode of "I Love Lucy" where Lucille Ball was overwhelmed while packing chocolates on a candy line.

It helps to have a sense of humor, and dedication, which the all-volunteer staff has, noted David Okorn, 46, a member of the center's board of directors and executive director of the Long Island Community Foundation, which makes grants to nonprofits.

"We play matchmaker to find the right individuals and organizations, and foster that relationship," Okorn said. "So many people don't know how to get involved or haven't been asked. We ask. And once they do it, they're pretty much hooked and come back year after year."

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