Volun-tears | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly


Utah leads the nation in volunteering, but women are carrying the load.

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I know a retired teacher who tried to volunteer at an elementary school last fall. It took two visits to the school office for her to conclude that placing classroom volunteers there was not a priority. She eventually gave up and went elsewhere.

You would have thought that the school would have been welcoming, that the prospect of having free help from a journeyman teacher would have caused the red carpet to be unrolled. The fact that it wasn’t is curious. After all, Utah classrooms are notorious for having too many kids and too little funding. It may be the school had a full complement of volunteers and was merely clumsy at dealing with a walk-in offer of help—not so implausible, given the fact that Utah has the highest rate of volunteerism in the country. Forty-four percent of Utahns spend about 90 hours each year in some volunteer capacity. In the Jordan School District alone, volunteers logged 158,434 hours during the past school year, according to coordinator of Educational Support Services Lisa Robinson.

I tend to be skeptical of Utah’s best-in-the-nation volunteering status. Were it not for the LDS Church, I don’t think Utah’s standing would be 17 points above the national average. I believe many of those 90 hours benefit the LDS Church in some form or fashion. Volunteerism is the lifeblood of the faith. Show me an upstanding Mormon, and I’ll show you a person with at least one “calling” to which he devotes his time.

Thus, the numbers are skewed in Utah’s favor. If I were wrong, Utah’s tradition of selfless service would be discernible in the ranks of the all-volunteer military. It isn’t. Why does Utah, a bastion of conservative values, have the lowest enlistment rate in the country? The answer may be as simple as “church trumps state.” The Army wants 19-year-old infantrymen; the LDS Church wants 19-year-old missionaries. The latter prevails more often than not.

Several other demographics contribute to Utah’s high ranking. Studies show the prime candidate for any volunteer job is a well-educated homeowner with a short commute. Utah leads the country in all three categories. We have a larger percentage of high-school graduates (90.4 versus 85 percent nationwide), more homeowners (71.7 versus 66.6 percent) and a commute four minutes shorter than the national average of 25.

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However, when it comes to volunteers in the school, statistics may be a lagging indicator. According to the Corporation for National & Community Service, the national volunteering rate increased to 27 percent in 2009. However, even as the overall rate increased, a countercurrent of volunteer fatigue garnered such headlines as “Frazzled Moms Push Back Against Volunteering” in The New York Times. With programs decimated by budget cuts, schools are looking for more volunteers, even as the volunteer pool is shrinking because parents are working longer and harder to keep families afloat. Volunteer burnout is one result. A woman quoted in the story said 10 years of school volunteering had left her “a run-down, crabby, resentful wreck.”

Another school-volunteer casualty started an Internet company, VolunteerSpot, to help organizations manage volunteers who all too often contend with “a certain amount of hassle or frustration—whether that is late-night e-mails, reply-all messages, reminder phone calls or searching for a parking space.”

Volunteer fatigue is a fact of life for Jill Van Leeuwen, the president of the Highland High School Parent, Teacher and Student Association (PTSA) for the past two years. “Twenty percent do 80 percent of the PTSA work,” she said, “and now, many are feeling like they have paid their dues and it is somebody else’s turn.” She added that there are also parents who sit on the sidelines knowing “if I don’t, someone else will.”

Contributing to the problem is the fact that parent involvement, prevalent in elementary schools, drops off in the upper grades, Robinson said. Leader positions are especially hard to fill. Van Leeuwen said it took many, many weeks to find a successor. “No one wants to be in charge,” she said.

Not many dads want to man up, either. Men account for only 2 percent of PTSA volunteers at Highland, Van Leeuwen said. “I think men think of PTSA as a woman’s place to volunteer and be in the schools.” To my mind, it’s a fairness issue. Seventy-four percent of Utah women with school-age kids have jobs. These working mothers are juggling too many balls and are paying a price, sometimes a physical one. “Moms are pulled in too many directions,” she said. “They feel guilty because they say to themselves, ‘I should be doing it but it’s not what I want to be doing.’ ”

Guilt leads to unhappiness. Women become increasingly unhappy as the years pass; men become happier as they age. The phenomenon is referred to as the paradox of women’s declining happiness. Women in the 21st century are free to choose from a menu of opportunity. To have choices is a source of happiness. That the choices often have unfavorable outcomes leads to unhappiness. Women often may feel shortchanged or unfulfilled. Or guilty. Or frazzled.

The paradox notwithstanding, women continue to do more than their share. The increase in the national volunteering rate between 2008 and 2009 was attributed to the contributions of married, working women between the ages of 45 and 54. “I have been lucky to have so many great women volunteer this year,” said Van Leeuwen.

Let’s hope the trend continues. Utah’s crowded, underfunded schools need all the help they can get.

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