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When Karen Lang moved to Southwest Florida last year, she wanted to get involved in the community by volunteering.

However, trying to find opportunities as a new resident unfamiliar with the sprawling area can be a daunting task. Lang turned to the internet and discovered the Volunteer Collier website, part of the United Way of Collier County, where she learned of an opportunity with the Women's Foundation of Southwest Florida.

“As a newcomer to Naples, like many others I was looking for a volunteer position that would enable me to use my skills and pursue my interests,” Lang said. “I have thoroughly enjoyed the work I have been doing for over a year. The United Way is to be commended for its community outreach.”

In Cape Coral, the nonprofit Lifeline Family Center relies on the work of its volunteers, upon whom it bestows the official title of angel. Elizabeth Rodriguez, the volunteer coordinator for the center, said the United Way in Lee County has helped the organization connect with some of those angels.

“We have volunteers who contacted us through the United Way, and they’re great,” said Rodriguez. “The United Way is such a valuable resource for us. There are not enough good things we can say about them. They’re very supportive with the advertising on their website and updating it.”

Keeping information about volunteer opportunities up-to-date on its website is a high priority for the United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee Counties, said the organization’s president, Clifford Smith.

Smith said the United Way posts the opportunities after vetting them for accuracy and timeliness. He said the volunteering section of the website is an outgrowth of the organization’s call-in volunteer center.

The website listing grew from the recognition of a growing number of people who preferred to browse for opportunities online rather than telephoning for information.

“When you run a volunteer center, you can have a type of listing on your website where agencies self-populate it, and we’ve purposely not done that,” Smith said. “It’s a simple and easy way to have a volunteer website, but we feel strongly that unless you have a mechanism for making sure the information is up-to-date, it really isn’t a good way to promote volunteerism because people will have a bad experience. You have somebody who is all fired up to get involved in the community, but then they get frustrated and give up. You may lose that volunteer for good. Our website has accurate information with volunteer opportunities that are open now. We think that one of the biggest turnoffs is when potential volunteers think they’re being sent on a wild goose chase.”

Rotating

While volunteering opportunities for Lee County are posted as a rotating list, the Collier County website features a variety of search criteria that pull up results filtered according to the entered search criteria, such as geographical, time schedule, skill and other criteria.

“Right now we have about 176 nonprofits, 1,500 registered volunteers and over 180 live volunteering opportunities ranging from the Boy Scouts to The Conservancy — a varied amount of activities,” said Ann Bares, vice president of volunteer engagement for the United Way of Collier County. “But we want all of the nonprofits in Collier County to be on the website. We know people volunteer according to what they connect with and where their passions are. We’re still reaching out to nonprofits to create awareness. We want to get all of the nonprofits on the website so we become the resource for volunteering in Collier County.”

While the United Way of Collier County doesn’t have the call-in volunteer center that Lee County’s United Way has, Bares did say that, if potential volunteers don’t have internet access, they could telephone the office for help finding opportunities. The Volunteer Collier website, however, provides a multitude of conveniences.

“With the website, they can shop for a volunteer opportunity at their leisure,” Bares said. “If it’s midnight when they finally get to sit down, they can just pull up the website, investigate the different nonprofits out there, see which one resonates with them and connect through the website.”

The work volunteers contribute on a regular basis does make a difference. Rodriguez said that in 2014, Lifeline’s angels gave nearly 13,000 hours to the Cape Coral nonprofit, which provided almost $300,000 of labor. She said the organization never could have afforded to hire that much labor.

“We wouldn’t be here without our angels, so if there’s someone out there who is even thinking about it, their time and energy and talents are really the life or death of an organization,” Rodriguez said. “Their volunteer hours allow us to stay afloat because we don’t have to pay that money out. They truly are our angels. Whatever time you have that’s available would definitely help out any organization you were thinking about volunteering for.”

Connect with this writer: @LauraTichySmith (Twitter)

To volunteer

Lee County: unitedwaylee.org/volunteer; 433-2000 ext. 9

Collier County: volunteercollier.com; 261-7112 ext. 206

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