As executive director of Serve Rhode Island, Bernie Beaudreau directs the federal AmeriCorps program in the Ocean State while also working to match volunteers with other projects throughout the state.
He spoke as ServeRI was planning the 2012 edition of the Roger Williams Park Clean Up Day, which has removed tons of trash from the city’s green jewel.
PBN: In two weeks, Serve Rhode Island is holding its annual Roger Williams Park Clean Up. How has the event evolved over the years and what do you set as a goal to accomplish with the effort?
BEAUDREAU: I remember my routine of walking the path around the pond a few years before I joined Serve Rhode Island, and repeatedly saying to myself, “someday we’re going to organize a small army and clean this mess up.” In October 2008, the pledge was fulfilled. This year’s cleanup will actually be the fifth time since we began in 2008. The first clean up was part of our AmeriCorps Opening Day Kick-Off. That first day we removed shopping carts, dozens of tires, a go-cart and about four tons of bottles and debris. There was so much junk, trash and litter in the pond that we couldn’t get complete the job in one day so we scheduled another cleanup for the following May. Cleanup days were repeated in 2010 and 2011 with between three and four tons of debris collected, including broken TVs and other household trash. Over the past four cleanups, we have had a total 849 volunteers contribute 2,547 hours of service cleaning up the ponds. This year we hope to have 250 people clean a little deeper sifting through the pond edge mud to remove the smaller debris such as bottle caps, etc.
PBN: How has the culture of volunteerism changed since Serve Rhode Island was founded in 1994 - are there more service volunteers today than two decades ago?
BEAUDREAU: Since about 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau has conducted an annual survey of households nationwide to produce a statistic on volunteer participation of the resident population. Over the past five years, Rhode Island’s volunteer participation ranking went from 42nd to 38th state in the country, indicating a slight improvement in volunteerism, from 24.2 percent to 24.4 percent of all Rhode Island residents who volunteer. Data is not available on the long-term trend in Rhode Island volunteerism over the past two decades, though many who have studied the subject believe that as households have had to increase their hours of work over time to meet their financial needs, part of the time available for volunteering has been lost. Over time, volunteering has also been “institutionalized” and counted separately from what was considered normal community and family life.
PBN: Why do you think that the numbers and commitment of volunteers have changed through the years?
BEAUDREAU: Opportunities for volunteering are primarily generated by nonprofit organizations, which need to have the capacity to organize and manage volunteer work. Over the past few years, when the economic recession has reduced government funding and philanthropic donations, many nonprofits have had to downsize in staffing, decreasing their volunteer management capacity, ironically at the very time volunteer labor could be helping more. The community needs for nonprofit services has increased due to increasing poverty and persistent high unemployment. In this resource-starved environment, volunteers of higher-level organizational and management experience are being sought after in greater proportions than in the past, in efforts to fulfill essential agency functions with volunteer “professionals.”
PBN: Many nonprofits are contemplating merging with one another, and Serve Rhode Island is an example of one such merger. It is three years into its combination with the Volunteer Center of Rhode Island. How has that been working?
BEAUDREAU: The merger has worked very well because it made programmatic sense in creating a continuum of service from occasional to full time with AmeriCorps. Funding for the volunteer center activities continues to be a challenge, however. In the past two years Serve Rhode Island has developed a service project model which facilitates community service projects sponsored by Rhode Island businesses such as Fidelity Investments, Hasbro and The Washington Trust Co. that are interested in creating employee service-project opportunities to benefit schools and the communities while providing team-building opportunities for their employees. Our strategic partnership with United Way of Rhode Island has developed, and will continue to develop, more service and volunteer opportunities for the business and philanthropic community.
PBN: Many people talk about a brain drain, of college students who come to Rhode Island but leave after graduation. You had 246 AmeriCorps members assigned to Rhode Island in 2010-2011. How many of them stayed in the state after their contract was up?
BEAUDREAU: We know that about 45 percent of Rhode Island’s current AmeriCorps members, serving in Rhode Island, were from outside the state. Similarly there are many Rhode Island residents who serve throughout the country and then return or find careers in their new locations. Data is not collected or available about where members settle after their year of service. However, as we are presently in the beginning stages of forming a Rhode Island AmeriCorps Alumni Association, we are discovering that there are a sizable number of non-residents who have become attached to Rhode Island and have found work in the nonprofit sector, or have continued their education here in the state - not much evidence of a “brain drain” from our perspective. I suspect that we will discover much valued added to our state’s labor force through the AmeriCorps program.