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Faith-based service impacts future of volunteers

Published: Sunday, Nov. 17 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Amy Ai, a sociologist at Florida State University and co-author of the study, said an analysis of the long-term impacts of volunteer service after Katrina has not been completed. But she agreed that a spiritual grounding could result in volunteer service influencing their spiritual life in the future.

"People become more religious because they have been challenged," Ai said, "and some people become less religious because they ask the question, 'Why did God allowed this to happen’ ” to the people needing help.

While some people would prefer volunteering through government or secular programs, Lindsay believes that faith-based service offers an added dimension that volunteers carry with them throughout their lives.

"Unlike other programs where the focus is entirely on the work you are doing, ours are very holistic in that they incorporate things like community living, prayer, reflection, spirituality," he said. "You are not just doing the work, which is important, but reflecting on how the experience is impacting your faith and your life."

CVN connects some 20,000 volunteers annually with about 220 faith-based organizations doing volunteer work in 48 states and 112 countries. More than 70 percent of the organizations are Catholic, while the others are run by Christian churches.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University conducted the survey and made the national comparisons with U.S. Census data and other national surveys. Lindsay said CARA also asked some demographic questions that it usually asks when doing survey work for other Catholic organizations.

Lindsay, a former Franciscan friar with a divinity degree from Catholic University of America, said he was most interested in the religious activity of former volunteers.

For example, the survey found 67 percent of former volunteers who were raised Catholic remain Catholic today. According to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of the U.S. adult population reported being Catholic in 2007.

"Overall, the survey presented our alumni in a very favorable light in terms of their involvement in their places of worship," Lindsay said, "but also in terms of their charitable giving, ongoing volunteerism and civic engagement."

Parental pushback

Wong, who is Episcopalian, followed through on his "gut feeling" and volunteered to help with Hurricane Katrina cleanup in Louisiana.

"That’s where I found out that service isn’t just what you do for others, but having a conversation with people can be more impactful than picking up a hammer," he said. "Those experiences taught me about the power of relationships. You work for someone but you walk with them as well."

He had friends at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., who had the same interests in service, and after graduation he decided to spend his first year out of school volunteering for the Amate House in a leadership training program in Chicago.

His parents weren't too thrilled, however, about the idea of their son working for free after earning an expensive four-year college degree.

"It took awhile for my parents to get on board," Wong, now a 24-year-old religious studies graduate, said. "When I first mentioned volunteer work, it came across like I was pursuing a hobby."

Lindsay said pushback from parents is understandable, particularly if a student accumulated student loan debt. But he said he can now respond with survey findings that say CVN alumni prosper after their service.

Only 23 percent of former volunteers reported earning a household income of $35,000 or less, compared with 35 percent of U.S. households. Three-fourths of former volunteers were either employed full-time or part-time.

"I look at the survey and say look at all the wonderful things that can happen," he said. "They are more educated, they make more money, they continue to be involved in their church, they are a meaningful part of society by continuing their volunteerism."

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