GALESBURG — Alice Kuzniar is seeing a growing number of retirees becoming volunteers.
Kuzniar is co-chairwoman of The Christmas Stocking program in Cuba, a community of about 1,400 people southwest of Canton. Theprogram, buoyed by donations and up to 40 volunteers, provides Christmas gifts to needy children.
"I think it's maybe a little bit easier now (to get volunteers than in years past)," she said.
Kuzniar's observations fit with a national trend, according to Sandy Scott of the Corporation for National & Community Service.
Scott said as 10,000 baby boomers reach retirement age daily — although not all of them are ready to retire — the segment of the population born between 1946-1964 is becoming increasingly important in the world of volunteerism.
"It's the largest, best educated group in the history of the nation," he said. "They represent an extraordinary resource for volunteerism."
Here, too, Illinois is finding more willing volunteers. In 2009, 29.8 percent of the baby boomer population in the state volunteered. In 2010, that percentage grew to 30.5 percent, 26th in the nation.
"Older Americans bring a lifetime of skills and experience to volunteering that's invaluable," Scott said. "Experience as workers, experience as parents, members of the community. We work very hard to engage retirees."
In Illinois, 23.5 percent of retirees volunteered in 2009, ranking Illinois 31st nationally in that category. In 2010, that percentage increased to 24 percent, almost 110 million hours compared to 2009. Gen X members more than doubled their volunteer rate between 1989 and 2010, from 12.3 percent in 1989 to 29.2 percent in 2010.
"This rise demonstrates a shift that researchers are seeing across the 'volunteer life cycle' — the arc of civic involvement that tends to increase as citizens feel a deeper connection to their communities through personal networks, their workplace and their children's schools," according to the Corporation for National & Community Service.
While Galesburg and most west-central Illinois cities in the 11 counties covered in this news series are too small to be tracked by Scott's organization, there were some numbers available for Peoria.
From 2006-2010, the 32.3 percent volunteer rate in Peoria was well more than the national rate of 26.5 percent. The total of volunteers in Peoria during those years was 93,500.
Scott said research on the national rate shows more people than ever are volunteering.
That is the case in Macomb, Galesburg and Pekin, where all three Salvation Army corps offices reported an increase in volunteer hours from 2010 to 2011.
Macomb led the way with an increase of 86 percent, Galesburg was up 22 percent and Pekin showed a 3 percent increase.
Total volunteer hours at the three corps offices increased 20.8 percent from 2010 to 2011.
Major Evie Diaz of the Salvation Army divisional headquarters said the face of volunteerism has changed.
"These days, we really have to be specific about what we ask volunteers to do," Diaz said.
"I would say that's true of all non-profits. People want to be engaged in a specific cause, such as homelessness.
"What I see more and more are business and groups engaging," she said. "That kind of volunteerism has increased."
She said volunteers want to know how their efforts save groups money or help serve more people.
"We have to make sure people know what difference their volunteerism makes," Diaz said.
In Henry County, Pastor Ann Champion of Galva First United Methodist Church said finding volunteers depends on the time frame. She said finding volunteers to chair standing committees can be difficult, while there are more people willing to help with short-term projects.
Champion oversees The Salvation Army's Red Kettle Campaign in Galva, where she has about 100 helpers.
"We have workers cover around 150 hours," she said.
"Operation Christmas Child, we had 80 volunteer workers and an unknown number of individuals who donated items. ... Most volunteers worked 2 to 6 hours. Some worked up to 30."
Scott said the best way to swell the volunteer ranks in local communities is by asking.
"The main reason people volunteer is they're asked to volunteer," he said.
"What we've learned, it's often the busiest people that volunteer the most. It's not a factor of the time you think you have, but how you choose to use your time."