America is cherished for many things, not least of which is the country’s capacity to step up and help each other during historical times of need. Many organizations find themselves with a surplus of volunteers, calling in every day with the hopes of spending their time helping a cause. Even here at the Lincoln Park Community Shelter, I am in awe of how dedicated our volunteers are, even on holidays. This tradition goes back much further than the shelter. In fact, America may not even be a free country today if it were not for the tradition of Volunteerism. Perhaps I should explain…
As the earliest pioneers came to America, they found themselves without supplies or a structured governmental support system. Colonists understood that “togetherness” was crucial to their survival. They formed support systems to help each other with farming tasks and household necessities. They nursed one another when people were sick to overcome illnesses that were new to them. This time period marks the beginning of dedicated volunteer work.
In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin (a personal favorite) founded the first volunteer firehouse, a tradition that still exists today in many small towns. He is also responsible for our library system, encouraging people to bring finished books to his home so that he could redistribute and share knowledge. Imagine living in a world where you couldn’t share e-books through multiple readers! The 1700s also brought the Revolutionary War, in which people raised funds to support the war efforts and would boycott any British goods (tea party, anyone?).
By the 19th century, America experienced a rejuvenation of religious fervor with the Great Awakening. Churches would have youth outreach programs and they would house the homeless. Many organizations formed during this time that still exist today, such as the YMCA, which emerged on a Michigan college campus, the American Red Cross in 1881, and the United Way. During the Civil War, many women spent time sewing supplies for soldiers and families in need. War has shown to be an important time in which people step up to help one another.
By the 20th century, America was no stranger to volunteering. The country had a great deal of practice, and just in time, because by the 1930s America was experiencing the Great Depression. It was during this decade that the first soup kitchen emerged to feed and shelter people and breadlines were created to help fulfill basic necessities. People were no longer giving and volunteering based on religious fervor. Some mainstream organizations that emerged were the Rotary Club in 1910, the Lions Club and Kiwanis in 1920.
By 1930, Roosevelt began the first wave of environmentalism (that’s right, long before Al Gore brought An Inconvenient Truth to theaters). The Conservation Corps began in the 1930s and has since been planting over 3 million trees a decade!
World War II had civilians supporting servicemen from home and also encouraged women to do many of the jobs previously reserved for men. During the 60s, a liberal movement began against poverty, inequality, and violence. Lyndon B. Johnson called it the “War on Poverty” in 1967. The Peace Corps was soon after created. Today, more than 2 million people each year are served by volunteers. Volunteerism is one of America’s largest human service organizations.
Hope that you enjoyed this trip through the history of volunteerism – please share where you think America will go from here? How does volunteering shape our country today and what can we expect for the future?
By: Meghan Freebeck