Written by Daniel Hazard
Westmoreland Congregational UCC in Bethesda, Md., has a vested interest in social justice that goes beyond sending money or supplies to local service agencies.
For the past 23 years, the congregation has been changing lives by sending carefully chosen volunteers through their Westmoreland Volunteer Corps, the only domestic volunteer service of its kind in the UCC.
Each year, five volunteers are chosen to live in the church's parsonage, where they live in an intentional community on a limited income. Based on their interests and skills, each individual is placed to work in a social service agency in the Washington, D.C., area for a year-long commitment. Since the program is linked to Americorps, the WVC program accepts volunteers regardless of religious beliefs, and there are no religious objectives in the program. Volunteers are provided with health insurance, transportation, a monthly food allowance and a small personal expense stipend. However, what sets the WVC program apart from others is the community of care provided by the Westmoreland congregation.
John Pielemeier, an active church member who serves on the WVC board, says that when the five volunteers arrive each Labor Day, the group is introduced to the church family. Shortly thereafter, there is a "Pound Party," where it is tradition that visitors stop by the parsonage, welcome the volunteers, and bring a pound of food or bulk supplies to line the group's pantry shelves.
As the volunteers get comfortable in their new postings, they will later be invited to speak during a "Mission Moment" during a Sunday worship service. What results, says Pielemeier, is an easygoing, informal relationship between the volunteer group and the congregation.
Once a week, someone from the congregation hosts the volunteers for dinner at their house. "Members get to know them on their own," says Pielemeier. "They'll give [the volunteers] a call when they need a housesitter or a dogsitter. One of our members invites them out on the Chesapeake Bay in his sailboat. Maybe someone has season tickets to the theatre, or some cultural event, and they'll share those tickets [with the volunteers]."
Pielemeier, a Peace Corps veteran, says his past experiences, as well as other board members' experiences, helps them to counsel volunteers as they face various on-the-job realities. "We know there are ups and downs," says Pielemeier.
Pielemeier says three or four months into the volunteer posting can be discouraging at times. "You begin to think, 'Am I having any impact here?'"
That's why Pielemeier and other board members regularly check in with volunteers.
However, by the end of the program, in May or June, Pielemeier notices changes among the volunteers.
"As you might imagine," he says, "when they arrive they are very energetic and idealistic."
Many volunteers leave the program with renewed focus. For many, that includes more education, oftentimes in a service-related area, such as divinity school, medical school or law school. Some continue working for the same agency as a full-time employee.
Learn more www.westmorelanducc.org
Volunteer Ministries introduces 'Companion Communities'
Inspired by the 23-year success of the Westmoreland Volunteer Corps, the UCC is now recruiting host churches for a new volunteer opportunity called "Companion Communities."
"Congregations can think of this as part of their young adult ministry," says the Rev. Mary Schaller Blaufuss, the UCC's executive for volunteer ministries.
"The host church will provide housing, maybe an apartment or a parsonage, then recruit four or five young adults under 30 to participate in this," explains Blaufuss. "The host church would have a spiritual sojourner who would help the community do some reflection on their service."
Volunteers will serve in local agencies, advocacies or direct social service agencies identified by the UCC. Blaufuss says the program will focus on relationship building, culminating in shared experiences that become part of a spiritual reflection.
"Part of that can be negotiating daily life space, deciding what to cook," Blaufuss says. "We're hoping it even provides some conversation about environmental issues."
In keeping with UCC polity, Blaufuss says the local church will be the centerpiece for Companion Communities.
"The national setting will facilitate recruitment and network the organizations with each other, and bring everyone together for a training event once a year," says Blaufuss. "We'll have that cross-country sharing of experiences. Hopefully, Companion Communities will become a hands-on piece for involved congregations."
Applications for volunteers will be accepted in early 2009. For more information, contact the Rev. Mary Schaller Blaufuss at 216/736-3214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Volunteer: 'It's our turn to give back'
"I have been wanting to volunteer ever since I was in junior high," says Maegen Anderson, a recent college grad and member of First Congregational UCC in Bakersfield, Calif.
Anderson, along with longtime friend, Christopher Charney, volunteered through the UCC's Partners in Service program at Overlook Farm's Heifer Learning Center in Rutland, Mass. She and Charney were trained as education volunteers to welcome the many church and school groups of all ages who come to Overlook Farm.
"We give them a tour of the farm where we talk about our 3 acres of organic gardens, plus the benefits we get from all kinds of livestock," says Anderson. "[The farm has] a camel, llamas, alpacas, cattle … just about any kind of animal that Heifer gives, we have here."
The five-month-long assignment was a natural answer to Anderson's yearning to make a difference in the world. "I, like so many people in the U.S. have been so privileged. ...It's our turn to give back to the rest of the world."
Besides falling in love with the animals she helps care for each day, Anderson says the best part of her volunteer assignment is being there for what she calls "a-ha moments."
"We have a lot of middle school age groups that come, a lot of them from pretty nice, privileged areas," she says. "When they learn that the U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population, but is consuming over 30 percent of the world's resources, their eyes … you really can notice that they are coming to realizations that they have never thought of before."
When guests at the ranch stay overnight in the farm's Global Village, more realizations occur.
"[Guests] might be staying in the Guatemala house, which is water-proof, but they are still sleeping on a dirt floor. They wake up and realize that this is not just a fun camping experience, but this is how other people are living every day," Anderson says. "And that is why it is important to be helping them."
Beyond retired, volunteers are 'refired'
Mary and Bill Ruth began their volunteer work through the UCC's Partners in Service program back in 2003, doing long-term service stints of nine months or more. They are currently on their sixth assignment, volunteering with Wider Church Ministries in Cleveland.
The Ruths still consider Elon, N.C., home, where they are members of Elon Community UCC, but their various assignments have taken them all over the country working for non-profit agencies.
Bill says being flexible is the name of the game.
Living in various types of housing, some of it community living, is different than having your own home. And the job itself requires flexibility. "We've done a variety of things," says Bill. "Office work in business and development offices. We've painted for nine months at Heifer. We've given Global Village tours. You have to be willing to leave your comforts of home, what you had, and do something a little different."
Mary says they have received many gifts from volunteering - friends, lots of emails, and doses of enthusiasm. "We try to lift staff morale because we are energetic and positive people," she says.
The couple meets each new assignment with anticipation. "We've discovered the great networking group out in the world of volunteers," says Mary. "It's so fun to hear about a new assignment from our friends of all faiths."
The Ruths call themselves "retired but refired" and find that the lifestyle of a volunteer suits them quite well. "We like being in a program like Partners in Service," says Mary. "We've met independent volunteers, and that's fine. In our experience, we are so glad to have an organization behind us."
Learn more at www.ucc.org/volunteer.