Sequester is now reality, meaning that $85 billion in automatic across-the-board cuts to most discretionary federal spending programs has begun. Many of these programs already depend on a corps of volunteers to operate effectively, and some managers are predicting that as funds disappear, volunteerism will become more essential.
Over the years, I have volunteered for many organizations, including Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, literacy programs and nature parks.
For the last seven years, I have volunteered for the International Council of the Tampa Bay Region, an affiliate of the U.S. State Department that brings foreign visitors to the United States. I have hosted guests in my home, dined out with them, conducted seminars and attended Tampa Bay Rays games with them.
I know of no other organization that does as much to teach foreigners about volunteering. Ironically, our visitors constantly remind us that the United States is unique in the world when it comes to volunteerism. They're right. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, approximately 63.4 million Americans, or 26.3 percent of the adult population, gave 8.1 billion hours of service worth $173 billion in 2010, the last year for complete numbers.
I never will forget the night at a Rays game when a Ukrainian guest, a security officer, asked me through an interpreter about my work with the International Council. When the interpreter said I was a "volunteer," the guest asked if being a "volunteer pays well." The guest was incredulous when the interpreter said I didn't get paid. I realized that I had taken volunteering for granted.
The overwhelming majority of our visitors come here knowing nothing about the role of volunteerism in civic life. Once they experience it, they clearly see that their countries need this kind of philanthropy.
President Barack Obama showed that he understands the diplomatic power of volunteerism when he authorized the State Department to create a special international leadership exchange program, Volunteerism: United We Serve, in 2011. It brings leaders from foreign countries to the United States to participate in volunteer efforts.
Gary Springer, president of the International Council of Tampa Bay, said the new program was designed as a "hands-on examination of the impact of volunteerism both on volunteers and the communities they serve. It shows young foreign leaders how volunteers of all backgrounds and ages, especially young people, are inspired to participate in community service."
He said our visitors know that when a major disaster occurs in their countries, the United States is first on the scene for rescue, recovery and rebuilding.
"But the depth and breadth of volunteerism they encounter during their visits astounds them," he said. "In Tampa Bay, our international visitors seek the 'volunteer experience' during their three-week official programs in the United States. To paraphrase many of them, Americans are so kind, and we volunteer to help so many causes. Americans just seem to do this naturally."
Springer said he tells visitors that Americans have the "habit" of volunteerism instilled in them at an early age through their families, neighborhoods, churches and schools.
"One visitor, who asked us why so many people attended a dinner for her group, remarked that 'in my country, we would have to pay people to attend such an event.' "
While in the Tampa Bay area, Springer said, visitors work with hundreds of local residents, community organizers and student interns on beach clean-up projects, in soup kitchens and in community food gardens.
"Volunteering is an infectious experience for them," he said. "Many visitors return to their communities and organize volunteers for all manner of projects previously unthinkable without the spirit of volunteerism."
Nationwide, Springer said, an estimated 88,000-plus volunteers, known as "citizen diplomats," organize professional meetings, cultural activities, social events and home hospitality for approximately 5,000 visitors annually.
Springer is not an alarmist. He worries, though, that as a State Department affiliate, the local council, like others nationwide, will be affected by sequester when the current fiscal year ends and after some State Department staff members are furloughed.
"There is nothing like breaking bread with our international visitors to give them insight into who we are, and how we live, work, learn and play," he said. "With sequester, all hands, including volunteers, will be needed on deck."