The Rapidian

Volunteering in Grand Rapids as a college student: Where do you start?

A conversation with the Heart of West Michigan United Way Volunteer Engagement Coordinator provides insight into getting involved in Grand Rapids.
Heart of West Michigan United Way in Grand Rapids

Heart of West Michigan United Way in Grand Rapids

Let HWMUW help you help others!

Check out Heart of West Michigan United Way's connect site. There, you can view recent volunteer needs in the community, access HWMUW's Holiday Giving and Volunteering Guide for 2018, and view a huge list of organizations to contact, events they're hosting, and more. 

Volunteering is the perfect way to not only make a difference, but start engaging with an unfamiliar community. For college students in the Grand Rapids area, volunteering can also be a way to explore interests, build relationships, and stumble across potential career opportunities. However, with the huge number of community and nonprofit organizations in GR, figuring out where to get your feet wet can be an overwhelming experience. Phil Gabel, the Volunteer Engagement Coordinator at Heart of West Michigan United Way, offers his advice.

At HWMUW, teams of dedicated volunteers work together to accomplish multiple community outreach projects throughout the year. For Gabel, a day of work might involve organizing collection drives such as Stuff the Bus or Spread the Warmth, or working on one-day initiatives like Day of Caring or Food from the Heart. Spread the Warmth, for example, was a recent drive across Kent County that collected hats, gloves, coats, boots, and other cold weather gear for the winter season.

It’s a big job, but for Gabel, it’s a pleasure. “Grand Rapids has always had my heart,” he said. “Plus, I love working with individuals. I love seeing the impact a single person can make by just giving one hour.”

The make-up of the volunteer pool at HWMUW is roughly 60 percent company employees and 40% students – but the majority of the student volunteers are middle and high school students, not college students.

When asked to comment on this lack of older students, Gabel explained that United Way works directly with the Kent School Services Network to connect with younger students. Often, teachers themselves will contact HWMUW to set up volunteer opportunities for entire classrooms of students. With universities, those direct connections often don’t exist.

Other nonprofit organizations in the city are also often disconnected from college students. Of the many organizations that HWMUW interacts with, very few are outspoken in terms of marketing to potential volunteers of any demographic.

“We interact with hundreds, if not thousands, of different organizations,” Gabel said. “Some do a great job in terms of advertising, and some don’t.”

Rest assured that, however, the relationships among the volunteering communities of Grand Rapids are strong; if an individual wants a certain kind of volunteering experience, they’ll be able to ask around and make the connection they’re looking for. If a person comes to HWMUW searching for volunteering guidance, they’ll always have the opportunity to be directed to a huge network of organizations.  

Gabel considers HWMUW a hub for first-time student volunteers, regardless of age, and encourages college students to reach out. “United Way has a foundation,” he said. “It’s easy for us to be able to match interests, skill sets, ideas, and thoughts with places in need of volunteers.” Anyone looking to help out can visit the HWMUW connect site to view hundreds of volunteering opportunities.

Gabel’s parting advice for college students, however, is to utilize a different important resource to help them get started – their university volunteering centers. The role United Way plays in facilitating volunteering for middle and high school students is just like the role a university’s volunteering center plays for its students. At Grand Valley State University, for example, the Community Service Learning Center connects GVSU students with community partners to help make lasting differences. Programs like this one are designed to give students the push they need to become active volunteers, and are the best means to getting involved.   

This holiday season, be sure to reach out to your university’s volunteering center to learn about events and opportunities in Grand Rapids. For extra guidance, check out the online connections Heart of West Michigan United Way has to offer. Happy volunteering!

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