Dr. Sarah Petschonek, founder of Volunteer Odyssey, is a Memphis stand-out. Her organization inspires Memphis new-comers and natives to get involved with Mid-South non-profits, harnessing the power of story-telling to engage and connect volunteers. We recently had the pleasure of interviewing her to learn more about Volunteer Odyssey’s various programs, the impact her organization is having on Memphis, and her goals for the future.
Orion: Your stated mission is “to connect volunteers with their ideal volunteer experiences and to tell those stories.” What is your favorite story that one of your volunteers has told/blogged about?
Dr. Petschonek: One of our volunteers, Stefan, saw me from across the room. His face lit up and hurried over, obviously intent on telling me some good news. I wondered what would make this otherwise soft-spoken man so animated. “I did it!” he said, rushing toward me. “I finally did it!”
“I always wanted to volunteer with the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry, but I was uncomfortable signing up for something when I didn’t know what to expect. I used Volio [Volunteer Odyssey’s virtual volunteer fair] and the videos showed me exactly what it would be like. I got to experience volunteering before actually volunteering, so I went! I was really shocked by how many homeless people there are, but it was really great to see so many other volunteers – many of them first timers like me. I’ve already been back a second time!”
I love this story because it is the perfect example of why we built Volio. Most people want to help, but they worry about the unknowns. What will it be like? Where do I go? What will I do? Volio’s videos not only remove the mystery – they inspire you to get involved. Stefan is still volunteering with Urban Bicycle Food Ministry and I’m sure we’ll have more great stories to share from him. In the mean time, you can see what Urban Bicycle Food Ministry is all about on Volio here: http://voliovolunteers.com/urban-bicycle-food-ministry
Orion: You started Volunteer Odyssey in 2013. Tell us about your proudest moment with the organization to date.
Dr. Petschonek: Megan was living in a small town and decided she was ready for a change. She had her choice of new cities and she decided that Memphis would be her new home. The job search would come second. Megan moved to Memphis and got connected with Volunteer Odyssey. In her first month, we sent her on a 7-day volunteering tour of Memphis so she could find her perfect spot to volunteer. Megan is spunky, smart, energetic, and loves kids. One place came to mind instantly – the Carpenter Art Garden. She spent a sunny afternoon painting art projects with kids in the Binghampton neighborhood. That evening I asked how it went. Her answer was simple, “I. LOVED. IT!” She was hooked. She volunteered there several more times in the coming days.
Two weeks later, I got the best email. Megan wrote, “I thought you should be the first to know…I just got a job at the Carpenter Art Garden. They created a position for me. My experience with Volunteer Odyssey was everything I had hoped for and so much more. I met individuals with the biggest hearts in the city, learned about the vital organizations in Memphis, and received invaluable advice from Mid-South natives. Next time you need a Volunteer Odyssey testimonial, I’m your girl!”
Megan is now the fantastic Director of Programs and Community Outreach at the Carpenter Art Garden. Among many other things, Megan manages volunteers, which means we get to work with her when we send volunteers their way.
It’s hard to pick a best part of this story, but it might be this sentiment from Megan, “Volunteer Odyssey made me fall in love with Memphis.” You can “visit” Megan and the Carpenter Art Garden through Volio: http://voliovolunteers.com/carpenter-art-garden
Orion: What do you wish other people knew about Volunteer Odyssey?
Dr. Petschonek: We began as a program for job seekers and we want Memphis to know how much we’ve grown since our start. We’ve launched three key components:
1) Our Calendar of Volunteer Opportunities is the most comprehensive listing of volunteer experiences in the Memphis area. It’s easy to use for volunteers and non-profits alike, which makes it simple to get started.
2) We’ve also created VolunCheers – our monthly volunteer happy hour designed so that busy professionals can volunteer in a fun and easy way that fits their schedules.
3) We’re also proud of our most recent effort, Volio. This virtual volunteer fair allows you to experience first hand what it is like to volunteer with Memphis’s incredible non-profits. This interactive platform combines storytelling and energetic videos that so volunteers experience a convenient, realistic way to preview new volunteer opportunities.
Volunteer Odyssey has grown to fit the needs of the community by connecting people with engaging opportunities and dynamic non-profits. While we have grown considerably, we want people to know that Volunteer Odyssey’s goal is the same – we connect Memphians with their perfect place to volunteer and we tell those stories.
Orion: What do you hope the organization will achieve in the near future? In the long term?
Dr. Petschonek: Memphians are great people – many people want to help, but most people don’t know where to start. At the same time, our non-profits are in need of volunteers so they can effectively achieve their missions and serve our community. Both sides are ready, but they’ve lacked the tools to find each other, until now.
In the near future, our focus is on increasing the recruitment of volunteers and non-profits alike to use Volunteer Odyssey’s resources so we can bridge that gap. Our Calendar of Volunteer Opportunities has the city’s most extensive listing of places to volunteer, with 25+ opportunities each week and we’re always adding more. Our virtual volunteer fair, Volio, is innovative – the first of it’s kind in the country. Now we need to onboard more volunteers and non-profits to increase its impact. There are skilled, passionate volunteers that have been sitting on the sidelines and now we are matching them with the non-profits that need their help. Using our platform to connect these two groups will create lasting impact.
In the long term, our vision is to foster a stronger culture of volunteerism in Memphis. This is most easily tracked by reversing the declining volunteerism rate in our community. To achieve that ideal, we must grow the number of volunteer connections. We must also 1) showcase stories about volunteerism, 2) coach non-profits on best practices for volunteer engagement, and 3) build new programs for all ages and groups including structured programs for groups that have traditionally struggled to connect with volunteer opportunities such as families, retirees, Memphis newcomers, and those looking to turn their lives around.
When someone asks you, “How can I start volunteering?” now you can be part of the solution and connect them with Volunteer Odyssey.
Orion: What would you tell someone who is thinking about signing up for Volunteer Odyssey?
Dr. Petschonek: Take the first step and reach out to us directly. All it takes is one time to get connected, which can begin a lasting relationship with a cause that’s important to you. Volunteers invest time but the returns are immense: volunteers feel more connected to their community, they learn new skills, and ultimately they report leading fuller lives. Whether you’re looking to spend a few hours at a one-time event or you are looking for a long-term match with an organization, we can help you find the right spot.
Our belief is that when you find something you love, you’ll look forward to volunteering and you’ll want to tell others. Sharing your experience will inspire those around you to get involved and make a difference.