Volunteerism swells as jobless, students seek meaning

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The Boston Globe

By: John M Guilfoil

February 3, 2010


Staring at his computer screen from a swivel chair in a cubicle, Harmin Linares looked every bit the technology professional, right down to his navy blue cardigan and matching slacks.

He was just weeks away from the "go live'' date on a major data automation project he'd been working on for four months.


But Linares, 56, was actually between jobs. Laid off from IBM in 2005 after 25 years at the computing giant, he won and lost two more positions to layoffs while trying to relaunch his career. But rather than settle for a less meaningful job outside his industry, Linares has spent the last five months donating his time and skills to the American Cancer Society, where he's creating a centralized resource to refer patients to support groups, free rides to treatments, cancer-related literature, and overnight stays for their families in Hope Houses throughout New England.


Linares said the project allows him to focus on something other than his daily search for a job. "When you're in a situation, as so many are nowadays, without a job, it becomes increasingly difficult day-to-day to deal with the reality,'' he said.


Charities say they have recruited a number of professionals who offer their services for free while looking for a "real'' job. "We have definitely seen an increase in volunteerism, particularly among displaced workers, college students, and a lot of recent college graduates,'' said Karen Rouse, a Cancer Society spokeswoman. "They're looking for meaning, and they want to expand their skills and network.''


With unemployment reaching 9.4 percent in Massachusetts in December, the highest in 33 years, nonprofits said they've definitely noticed the trend. One Cancer Society program in particular, the Patient Services Center phone line, jumped from 16 volunteer applicants in November 2008 to 78 applicants this past November.


"A lot of people have additional time on their hands, and they are looking to do something useful and meaningful and fulfilling with that time,'' said Patrice Keegan, the executive director of Boston Cares, which sends volunteers to about 300 nonprofits and schools. "They want to be useful, and they don't want to sit at home and feel sorry for themselves.''


The New England Aquarium attracted more than 1,050 applicants for 261 spots on its volunteer roster last year, up from 657 applicants in 2008.


Dorchester native John Lyons, a 2009 Northeastern University graduate, was an intern at the aquarium in 2007, and returned after he graduated as an unpaid volunteer.


"My friends and I know that there are a fairly limited number of jobs for all the people who want them,'' said Lyons, a biology student who spends days diving into the aquarium's shark tank. "I'm not going to be bitter about it.''


Lyons lives at his parents' home in Dorchester, and is often on the Web, researching potential aquarium or national park postings in the hope of finding a paying job doing what he now does for free.


Some job seekers volunteer to hone their skills or build a resume, and make themselves more attractive to potential employers. Rouse said she's noticed an upswing in what she calls cafeteria volunteerism - a trend toward short-term commitments that offer the chance to expand or learn new skills while looking for work.


"They also want a situation they can extricate themselves from,'' said Keegan, of Boston Cares. "If they do get a job, they don't want to feel like they are abandoning something.''


Don Pinkerton, 51, was laid off from his job in the finance industry last year. He started volunteering at the aquarium in April; he was recently hired as a biology teacher in Salem, said Caitie Peterson, a spokeswoman for the aquarium.


That can create a dilemma for nonprofits that lose a valued volunteer once a good job offer comes along. Even though the aquarium usually asks for a six-month commitment, it has lost some volunteers who have found other jobs.


"Our philosophy is really to make long-term investments with people,'' said Mona Chang, manager for volunteer programs.


Nonprofits reported that a number of volunteers still donate their services simply because they see the need, especially in the current economy.


Samaritans Inc., a suicide prevention group with offices in Boston and Framingham, reported a 20 percent increase in the last three years in the number of volunteers.


"We have heard, increasingly, 'I know this is a time that's difficult for people, and I can only imagine that you have a higher demand for your services. I want to help out,' '' said Roberta Hurtig, the group's executive director.


For Linares, volunteering at the Cancer Society means more than just finding a place to exercise his skills while he looks for work.


Both of his parents and his brother are cancer survivors, and he lost a nephew in December to lymphoma. He said that even if he gets a job, he'll try to stay with the Cancer Society part time.


"I feel like I'm helping my neighbors,'' Linares said. "It's not about me when I come here.''

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