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Florida chock-full of volunteers? Think again

Florida ranks high on the list of states with the best beaches or the most sunshine. But track volunteerism, and it's a decidedly different picture.

In a recent report on volunteer rates, Florida ranked 49th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, ahead of only New York and Nevada.

The Tampa Bay area fares little better, coming in 40th among the nation's 50 largest cities, despite having more than half a million volunteers.

Why so few volunteers in the Sunshine State? Thank the uncommitted, who volunteer but don't stick with it, and snowbirds.

"You have more people leaving volunteering than at the national rate," said LaMonica Shelton, an associate director at the Corporation for National and Community Service, which conducted the study.

In Florida, the volunteer retention rate is 53 percent, Shelton said. The national average is 64.3 percent.

In the bay area, large numbers of apartment dwellers and a relatively high population density are also to blame. Both increase anonymity and diminish community bonding, and the combination means volunteering is less likely, the report showed. Florida is the ninth-densest state, with 1,037 people per square mile.

Long commutes don't help.

Still, local charities were shocked by the findings.

"I am flabbergasted because we run with volunteers," said Jane Trocheck Walker, the executive director of St. Petersburg's Daystar Life Center, a private emergency relief agency. "We could use more, but I haven't noticed a decline."

It wasn't all bad news for the bay area. Among volunteers who donate more than 100 hours of community service a year, the bay area ranks seventh in the nation.

In all, more than 550,000 volunteers contributed 77.3-million hours a year in the bay area, the report showed. By comparison, No. 1-ranked Minneapolis-St. Paul recorded 913,000 volunteers donating 106.2-million hours a year.

The top state for volunteerism is Utah, in part because of close-knit communities and a large population of Mormons big on civic participation.

Researchers gleaned their findings from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Current Population Study. That study, which covered five years, included a section with specific queries about volunteer work.

Bay area charities said the survey results do not consider several factors unique to Florida, such as its large migrant population. The report also does not fully account for the large number of elderly people in the state, many of whom have mobility issues that keep them from volunteering or who simply prefer to enjoy retirement rather than serve.

• • •

Doug Arnold, vice president of marketing for the United Way of Tampa Bay, said the number of new volunteers at his organization grew 6 percent to 1,455 in the past year. The agency has more than 13,000 active volunteers and posted an increase in project hours in the past year.

"The numbers continue to go up, and that's the true indicator of what we see as being an effective way to measure what we see here," Arnold said. "The national standing? Apples, oranges and fruitcakes. You really can't compare Minnesota to Tampa."

More than 10,000 bay area residents volunteer each year at Metropolitan Ministries, said chief operating officer Tim Marks.

"With all the challenges that a family might have with taking care of their jobs and their kids, I think we get a fair share of support from the community," Marks said.

At the Great Explorations Children's Museum in St. Petersburg, Nestor Ortiz said he also has a strong stable of volunteers. But with a sagging economy and high gas prices, Ortiz is looking at ways to attract community support that don't require a trip to the museum.

"We're getting creative on what we term volunteers and what ways people can support us," Ortiz said. "Our main focus is really getting them here, but it's really all about how can you get involved."

Sherri Day can be reached at (813) 226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.

.Fast facts

Places volunteers go in Tampa Bay

Religious groups:
31.7 percent

Educational: 27.3 percent

Social services: 13.3 percent

Health: 10.4 percent

Other: 8.8 percent

Civic: 4.9 percent

Sports/arts: 3.6 percent

To learn more, visit www.volunteeringinamerica.gov.

Source: Corporation for National and Community Service

Florida chock-full of volunteers? Think again 07/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 31, 2008 7:01pm]
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