Volunteers save Salt Lake County millions, but also enrich own lives

Published: Tuesday, May 29 2012 8:54 p.m. MDT

Chuck Westfahl loads Bill Moore's groceries into a county van at a Walmart in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 24, 2012. Westfahl has been volunteering his time by driving senior citizens for three and a half years. He picks up folks at three different apartment complexes, drives them to Walmart and takes them home after they have finished shopping.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Ten senior citizens pack into a van on a recent morning, on their way to the grocery store for their weekly trip.

Chuck Westfahl stands outside the van with his hand outstretched, helping everyone onboard. Westfahl, a Draper resident, has volunteered for three and a half years, driving to Salt Lake City every week to give the seniors a ride to and from the grocery store.

"I don't think you can save the world, but if everybody does a little bit, it sure makes life better for a lot of people," Westfahl said.

He is one of more than 20,000 Salt Lake County residents who volunteered during 2011, according to the latest statistics released by Salt Lake County Volunteer Services. The value of their efforts is calculated to be $20 million, providing services to the county officials say it otherwise could not afford. It's the equivalent of 456 additional full-time county employees.

But the work of these volunteers can't be measured in money alone.

"He makes everyone feel like the most important person in the world," said Nancy Dixon, who relies on Westfahl's weekly rides.

What has endeared Westfahl to those he serves is the love he shows them. In addition to taking them to the grocery store, he's done more than what's required of him, buying them $15 gift cards and even flying one woman to Minnesota for a few weeks so she could see her family.

"Hopefully (it's) a bright spot in their day," he said. "It's a bright spot in mine, so it's fun to do."

The Salt Lake County Volunteer Services division works with more than 100 programs to coordinate volunteer efforts. It's the largest organization of its kind in the state. Director Sheryl Ivey said voluntarism is a hallmark of the county.

"We have a culture of voluntarism here that doesn't exist in other places," she said.

It's a culture that stems from an emphasis placed on service in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ivey said, but it's grown beyond that.

"People kind of expect to give some of their time whether they're members of the LDS Church or not," she said.

The volunteers are invaluable to the community because the county doesn't "have the budget for all the work our tremendous volunteers do," Ivey said.

"We literally couldn't function without our volunteers," she said. "The tax base would be much higher or we just would not be able to provide social service programs that we do."

Salt Lake County Volunteer Services began after volunteers rallied during record flooding across the Wasatch Front in 1983.

"We had the opportunity at that time to see numerous volunteers show up and we thought, what a great way for us to be able to put them to use in Salt Lake County and offer some services we wouldn't ordinarily be able to offer," Ivey said.

Sixty percent of volunteer hours in 2011 were devoted to the human services category, which includes Meals on Wheels, youth services and programs for the elderly like the shopping runs that Westfahl participates in. Other volunteers work at the jail, serve as ushers at Abravanel Hall or clean up graffiti.

The Clark Planetarium relies on volunteers like Cottonwood Heights resident Charlotte Wakefield to keep its lights on. Wakefield works to secure donations and raise money for the planetarium's educational outreach programs.

"I wanted to make a difference," she said. "It's very easy because the cause is great. It's educating children."

Wakefield and 27 other volunteers who serve on the board of directors and other capacities have made it possible for 60,000 elementary students to visit the planetarium free of charge. Another 25,000 students have had the planetarium programs visit their schools, and 500 teachers received kits training them on science education.

"You realize it does make a difference and they're learning something," Wakefield said.

Utah has been the No. 1 state for volunteering for six years running. According to the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, 44.5 percent of adults in Utah volunteer.

Salt Lake County's volunteer program is "second to none" and enriches the community, said Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.

“We know that volunteering improves the lives of those we serve," he said. "But we are more likely to hear our volunteers talk about how much volunteering has done for them and they thank us for the opportunity."

Those interested in volunteering can visit www.volunteer.slco.org for more information.

E-mail: hschwarz@desnews.com

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