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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Volunteers Celeste Lemmon, back left, Paul Wizniuk, center, Kathy Hoenig, back right, Michele Fisher, right, and Thad Aaron, front left, begin filling food trays at St. Vincent De Paul center in Salt Lake serving food to the homeless Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to voluntarism, Utahns have a tendency to give and give and give.

For six years running, the Beehive State has ranked No. 1 nationally for volunteering, according to Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics data. It shows that 44.5 percent of Utah adults volunteer.

Volunteering, says Sheryl Ivey, volunteer services director for Salt Lake County, is "a win-win."

"We become more as individuals through acts of volunteerism, there's all kinds of scientific evidence behind that," she said.

There's also a significant amount of data regarding the financial worth attached to service that volunteers provide. In Salt Lake County alone, 906,362 hours of volunteer service in 2010 was estimated to be worth more than $18.6 million.

These figures represent the service of more than 21,000 volunteers, whose gifts of service vastly extend the reach of the county's social services and youth programs. Their contributions can range from delivering Meals on Wheels or coaching a youth sports team to providing respite care to the caregiver of a chronically ill spouse.

"The benefit to the county is, without these volunteers, we could not offer these services," Ivey said. "Where would these children be without mentors and people to look up to?"

Three years ago, Chuck Westfahl was looking for a way to give back. After doing a little research, he landed on providing transportation to seniors through Salt Lake County Volunteer Services.

Every Thursday, Westfahl, 68, drives to three apartment complexes and transports a group of seniors to Walmart for their weekly shopping.

"The little thing I do extra is buy $15 gift cards and every week, I have a little drawing among my seniors. I got a bunch of really good people," he said.

At Christmas, he gives each of his passengers a $15 card. "For some of them, it makes a big difference."

Over time, Westfahl and his passengers have become like family, he said.

"I just enjoy doing it. They're good people. The good Lord has been pretty good to us and sometimes you give a little back. That's kind of why you do it."

State officials estimate that Utah volunteers contributed about $3.8 billion in service in 2010.

Shar Lewis, executive director of the Utah Commission on Volunteers, said theories abound as to why Utah consistently ranks top in the nation for voluntarism.

To a large degree, voluntarism is a way of life for many Utahns and their families.

Utahns may volunteer more because people and organizations that need assistance are good at asking for targeted help. 

"If you make an 'ask,' people will step up and serve," she said.

Utah nonprofits, government agencies and religious organizations have a proven track record of collaborating around important issues such as reducing chronic homelessness. That ability to work together — rather than at cross purposes — encourages volunteer activity, she said.

As the economy has worsened, the needs of agencies and nonprofit organizations that serve the needy have increased. To meet these demands, many organizations are asking for more volunteers.

Many Utahns have answered the call. Some have been people who are out of work and need an opportunity to contribute.

For some in that boat, volunteer service has had the added benefit of leading them into new employment. "What is happening now is, they're out there opening themselves up to a new world and they're networking," Lewis said.

Most volunteers learn that there are other immeasurable benefits on the giving end, said Ivey.

"By helping those in our community, we learn more about ourselves — our capacity to love and our capacity to engage in the lives of others," she said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com