Many volunteer for overseas humanitarian aid trips, traveling thousands of miles and raising thousands of dollars to help others. But what about volunteering at home? Casey Watson explores the dilemma of one nonprofit in Paducah. Starfish Orphan Ministry can find plenty of people willing to travel and to assist children in El Salvador and other countries. But, with the exception of special events, it struggles to find regular volunteers willing to help address the needs of people in its own city.
It’s well into the night, maybe around 10 p.m. The streets of San Salvador, El Salvador, are dark and deserted—except for our pickup truck and for the homeless people flocking to it.
There’s a mix of local people and volunteers from the United States crammed in the bed. We’re shouting “comida,” which means “food” in Spanish. When the homeless walk up to the vehicle, we hand them meals wrapped in plastic bags.
And while we cater to the hungry in San Salvador, back in Paducah, Kentucky, two or three men deliver beds for Starfish Orphan Ministry.
Starfish is also the nonprofit organization sponsoring the trip in San Salvador. Based in Paducah, it serves people in need, both at home and abroad. It helps build houses for impoverished families in San Salvador. It provides beds for children in Paducah. And, it gives clothes to impoverished people in both cities.
Yet, Starfish has a problem. It runs solely on volunteers. And most of that workforce volunteers in San Salvador—but not in Paducah. It’s a problem without much of a solution.
“There is lots of interest to travel and do this sort of work, but it is hard to get people to volunteer at home, too,” Starfish Executive Director Laura Roberts says. She adds, “We have need every day to deliver furniture to single moms, and we have no one to deliver it.”
She says in the past 10 years, her organization has taken more than 1,000 volunteers to orphanages in San Salvador. But, Roberts still logs onto Facebook and begs for volunteer drivers to deliver beds in Paducah. She says single moms often have no way to pick up donated furniture themselves.
“We’ve got the things that they need, and we’ve got the people that need them,” Roberts explains. “We just don’t have somebody to connect the dots.”
Joe Millay is Starfish’s missions director and one of its few regular volunteer drivers. He says they have to prioritize children in the most need.
“If someone is sleeping completely on the floor, then we find a way to get it to them right then,” he says. “They’re put at the top of the list. But, we need volunteers—any kind of volunteers.”
In contrast, Starfish took about 120 people to work on overseas humanitarian projects in 2016.
Steve Portillo is the operations manager for Sus Hijos, a nonprofit organization that partners with Starfish on these projects in San Salvador. His organization relies on volunteers from the U.S. because, he says, people in our country are more willing to help. He struggles with Laura’s exact problem in his own city.
“You have a culture and a passion,” he says. “It’s something that you guys have clearly defined in regards to take time away to do a volunteer job. And here in El Salvador, we do not have that culture. … To be really, really honest, it’s easier to get people from the States to come to El Salvador to help.”
So, where is that enthusiasm in Paducah? Laura Roberts says she believes the modern American life just isn’t built for constant local volunteering.
“I think people can plan this trip … way ahead of time,” she says. “You make it a priority, and with furniture delivery, it’s more of an immediate thing, and people have so many distractions. And they just get busy and involved in other things, … and I think it’s just hard to commit quickly like that.”
There isn’t an easy answer. Roberts says volunteers can deliver beds after work hours. But, she also needs help with other duties, like cleaning and answering phones. And still, she doesn’t want to neglect work in San Salvador.
Because organizations there have trouble finding local volunteers, as well. It’s a constant battle. Nonprofits in both countries always need more people to deliver beds to build houses and to distribute food.
Disclaimer: Casey Watson is a freelance journalist whose trip to El Salvador was paid for by Starfish Orphan Ministry.