CINCINNATI — With more than 1,800 volunteer opportunities for a list of 700 nonprofits and counting, Cincinnati Cares helps “connect the public to what nonprofits need now -- from products and supplies to donations to ways to help through hands-on or skilled volunteering.”
The volunteering part is key, because when the pandemic forced shutdowns in Cincinnati in March 2020, the opportunities dried up.
“You couldn’t volunteer at the Aronoff, you couldn’t volunteer at the Museum Center,” said Carol Rountree, chief volunteer officer with Cincinnati Cares.
At first, the group started reaching out to individual nonprofits asking if they could take volunteers remotely. They also added functionality to the Cincinnati Cares site and, though they already had a dozen other sites in Michigan, Nevada, Massachusetts and more, other cities realized they could use the resource.
After adding Cleveland and Tampa sites, the team became very busy.
“We needed a lot of labor,” Rountree said.
At the same time, Josey Leach was searching.
“I was kind of just looking for a volunteer experience just to kind of get a little bit more experience, something to fill up my time during the pandemic, since everything was shut down,” she said.
Leach, now about to enter her fourth year at the University of Cincinnati, found a good fit researching and helping to build out nonprofit profiles.
Rountree then asked her if she would like to be an intern instead of a volunteer. It happened because of a “Serve IT” grant, enabling UC and its service learning program the ability to pay the students $1,000 for up to 80 hours of work on a technical nonprofit project.
That is part of an even larger expansion though at UC.
“We saw an exponential explosion in numbers for our new service learning Co Op program,” said Michael Sharp, UC's service learning director. “We were supposed to place 50 students a year. And in about a year, we're a little bit above 400 placements.”
Sharp said the transition to remote service during, and because of the pandemic, they may be here to stay. He calls it a silver lining.
“We've learned how to interact in a virtual space," Sharp said. "And we've learned how to still connect, interact with our community partners. I’m not saying it made service learning easier. It just made it different."
For Leach, the ability to connect with others was “a really positive experience getting to know other students in a time when that's not really possible.”
She also plans to be more open to opportunities in the future.
“I felt like when the pandemic started, I was like, 'OK, well, there's nothing I can do about it. I'm kind of just stuck. I can't really get the same opportunities I usually get in college,' but I kind of just pushed through that,” Leach said.
At Cincinnati Cares, where Rountree went from managing a couple interns to 12, many interns like Leach want to come back for further projects. Rountree thinks they could manage 25-30 down the road.
UC has so far partnered with 120 nonprofits to place 402 students while attracting new funding from donors to add to the program. You can find more about service learning here.