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Many Hands Make Light Work

by Lorin Schmit Dunlop • August 2017

He was about 80 years young, and the smile on his face that day said it all.  From every angle in the small library of the Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts, there were shelves full of meticulously categorized and neatly organized volumes of art history books, journals and exhibition catalogs. There were thousands of publications, some reaching back decades, and all standing at attention just waiting for the curious to open their pages. The organizational handiwork of one tenacious and charming volunteer by the name of John, the library is a rare and valuable resource for any student of ceramics or art history.  John is a retired middle-school English and History teacher who, for the past 16 years, has devoted countless hours to a task that others would find too tedious or overwhelming to even consider. When I asked what motivated him to keep going with such herculean effort, John replied spritely, “It keeps me out of trouble!”  I still smile every time I tell his story.

One of the things I enjoy most about being a program director is conducting site visits with organizations (big or small) that apply to the Murdock Trust for funding. My fellow program directors and I crisscross the Pacific Northwest and beyond in planes, trains, cars, ferries and, on occasion, even snowmobiles!

Our ultimate destination can’t be found on a map, though. We’re seeking out the stories of the remarkable and noble work being done every day by the nonprofits we partner with across the region. These site visits give us the opportunity to meet with an organization’s leadership (both staff and board) and learn about the impact their programs and services have on their communities and beyond.

Invariably, we meet with and hear the stories of those who freely give their time and talent to support the mission of the organization—selfless volunteers like John. These are the stories that touch us most deeply, the ones we share with each other as we sit around a table to discuss our recent travels.

Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East
Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East (photo credit Frank Hunt)

We recount stories of volunteers who work with the hungry and homeless, build houses for people they’ve never met, get their hands dirty in community gardens, bravely lead busloads of school children through tours of a museum, spend countless hours sewing costumes for a community theater, or skillfully restore a historic landmark so it can once again be used as place for citizens to gather. Perhaps the American humorist Erma Bombeck said it best: “Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect this nation’s compassion, unselfish caring, patience and just plain loving one another.”

Unfortunately, volunteerism in America has declined in the last decade. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of Americans volunteering dropped from 29 percent in 2003 to about 25 percent in 2014. One of the biggest factors driving the trend is the high rate of households where both parents work outside of the home, leaving less time for volunteer work. In light of this trend, I’m even more amazed and inspired by volunteers I meet throughout our region who give their time, not to just one organization, but sometimes to two or three!

Volunteerism is an important part of the culture here at the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust as well. From our Trustees to our interns and all points in between, members of the Murdock family are continually giving back to their communities and beyond.

So whether you’ve been volunteering for years or are just considering taking that first step, know that there are thousands of fine nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest looking for someone just like you! Pick up your phone or log onto your computer and simply click on the “Volunteer” link of your favorite nonprofit’s website. Whether you choose to volunteer every month or once a year, we at the Trust encourage you to plant that garden, swing that hammer, teach children to read (or ride a horse!), or take part in a citizen’s science research program like the one offered at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

The act of giving to others with no expectation of financial compensation is a long, enduring tradition in America. And it’s one we hope to see continue for generations to come.

Lorin Dunlop is a program director at the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.