The Karelson's make a difference by working together

Jeremy and Kayla Karelsen married young. The first few years of their marriage they changed colleges a few times and moved around a lot. While they both felt volunteering was important, neither of their lives felt stable enough to commit to an ongoing volunteer position.

By the fall of 2011 they had both decided what they wanted to study and where they wanted to go to school. Settled in Spokane, they turned their attention to finding a place where they could volunteer to build their skills and give back to the community.

“We wanted to apply the business skills we are learning in school in a volunteer position, but really we just wanted to find a place where we felt like we fit in and could make a difference,” says Kayla. “It was time to be part of something bigger than ourselves.”

They had a few things they were looking for in a volunteer gig. Not only did they want to find a warm, friendly place to volunteer where they could make a difference and learn new things, they also wanted to find a place where they could volunteer together.

Volunteers of America fit the bill. Not only could they work together as volunteers, but the organization matched their vision for uplifting those in need. 

“What Volunteers of America stands for and the work they do every day coincides perfectly with our values and wishes for the world,” says Jeremy. “One of the main reasons we chose to volunteer with Volunteers of America was because the organization touches so many lives through their various programs.”

After reviewing the various volunteer positions available on the Volunteers of America website, the Karelsens decided to look into volunteering in the administrative office. 

“We really wanted to help a program that touches a lot of people’s lives,” says Jeremy. “And where we can improve on and practice our skill sets.

Kayla recalls the hot summer afternoon when she first visited the Volunteers of America offices for an initial volunteer interview. “My past experience interviewing with other agencies caused me to feel a lot of anxiety as I was walking up the stairs leading to the administrative office. But that feeling immediately subsided when I was greeted by Jim—who was quick to jump into friendly conversation.”

“And that was just the beginning,” she continues. “We never thought we would find such wonderful people to volunteer with and also to be able to do it together. We have met and been able to work with amazing employees. They are some of the nicest, most caring people that we have ever had the pleasure of working with. They all care so much about what they do and it makes us even more excited to be there and help.”

The Karelsens have proven themselves to be helpful, friendly and hard-working. As administrative volunteers they work with many of the employees who make Volunteers of America run—fundraising and event staff, volunteer and program coordinators, the accounting staff and others. 

When asked how they see their role the Karelsens reply: “We are there to alleviate some of the tasks that need to be done so that the employees can attend to more important matters. We strive to make things easier, not harder, for them.”

The couple has been volunteering once a week—for two to four hours each time—since the summer of 2011. 

“We usually spend our time entering batches of donor data into the database,” says Jeremy. “Our other time might be spent filing, completing mailings, writing thank you notes, or working on special projects. This last time we went we were excited to make chocolates to give to donors for Valentine’s Day. We had never made chocolates before and they turned out great. The staff always impresses us with their creativity.”

“We like that they switch our tasks around,” adds Kayla. “Just about every time we volunteer there is something different that needs to be done relative to the last time we came. The variation in work keeps things interesting and enables us to learn new things. Volunteers of America is also very accommodating with our volunteer schedule; if we have something going on at school we can always reschedule our volunteer time for another day.

They particularly remember the first time that they learned how to enter donor data into the database. 

“At first we were not sure that we would be able to remember how to do it for the next time, and it took a lot of practice, but we eventually got it down,” recalls Kayla. “The staff was very patient and sensitive to our learning style. Now every time we enter donor data we focus on improving our speed and accuracy.”

But more importantly than just learning skills or helping the staff, the experience has opened their eyes.

“Entering donor data into the database has made us realize how many people help support this organization and we think it’s such a great thing,” says Jeremy. “Even if someone donates one thing, that one thing will help make a difference.”

“On our way into the administrative office,” adds Kayla, “we cannot help but see and hear many of the people who seek services from Volunteers of America and it is unsettling to see how many people need help. We’ve seen firsthand that there isn’t a certain profile or demographic that separates these people apart from the rest of the world. Within a short period of time someone can go from living completely comfortably to being homeless. No one is immune and it is often no fault of the person. We wish we could win the lottery to give all of the people in need the foundation they need to move forward in their lives.”

“Although we spend nearly all of our time in the administrative office, we have visited and have become more familiar with the programs that Volunteers of America supports. The reality is that most of the recipients are very deserving and realizing that has made us more aware of how wonderful it is that Volunteers of America is here for them. No one is perfect, we all have our biases even if we do not mean to, but this experience has truly been an eye-opener."

When thinking about how the experience has changed them the Karelsens remark that they now realize how even the smallest effort can affect others in a big way. 

“Volunteering is something we enjoy doing and we hope to teach our future children the importance of giving back and how even little things can make a huge difference in the lives of others,” says Jeremy. “Not everyone is financially equipped to donate money or goods but whether people are rich or poor, most of us have at least an hour that we can give.”

“Volunteering is so personally rewarding for both of us,” adds Kayla. “We never expect anything from Volunteers of America but we are constantly recognized and thanked and it feels very good. To us, helping out and feeling appreciated for it is the best gift we could ever receive. We would have signed up sooner had we known it would be like this, honestly.”