By Ayumi Davis
The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum was packed as people from all over Chicago attended the annual Volunteer Expo, looking for ways to get involved in the community. With over 2,000 Chicagoans in attendance, the expo featured and showcased about a hundred different nonprofit organizations across the Chicagoland area. It provided a chance for Chicagoans to explore and learn about new and different volunteer opportunities, as well as give organizations and groups a chance to gather new volunteers and raise awareness about the problems they are tackling.
Many of the well-known organizations were there, such as the USO and Red Cross, but there were other local programs that were more centered around the Chicago area, such as the 826Chicago, The Honeycomb Project, the Tree House Humane Society and many more.
The opportunity to get out there is especially helpful for organizations like Human Library Chicago, an organization that allows people to act as “books” and tell their story.
Marlena Johnson, founder of the Human Library Chicago chapter, said the non-profit is relatively new. “We’ve only been around for about two years, but we’ve been organizing our events for about five years and so, we think it’s important to get concept and name out there to get more people to engage in our events in our community,” Johnson said. “We think it’s important to try to expand our volunteer pool to as many different people as we can and this is a great place to do it.”
Expo goers could also volunteer and help out first hand by helping to make cards for kids in hospitals with Cardz for Kidz, or weave plastic bags into sleeping bags for the homeless with New Life for Old Bags.
Event attendee Christina Aro said attending the expo was worth the time. “You do feel like you’re helping people who are less fortunate, whether it be they’re sick and need assistance with any myriad of things,” Aro said. “It just feels good to help people who need it and maybe aren’t necessarily in the public eye.”
Many attendees were there for the first time, looking for new groups to volunteer with or to figure out how to get involved more.
Paul Wegrzyn, an attendee, said he hadn’t volunteered much and wanted to start. “When you’re in the rush of go to college, get a job, do this and that, it’s not something you stop to think about doing until you’ve had a few minutes to kind of reflect, you know?” Wegryzyn said. “So, I feel like I’ve done it before when I was in high school, when I was younger. But I haven’t had a lot of time to just stop and get into it again, so that’s why it comes to mind to me and that’s why I’m here.”
This is the seventh expo since its first event in 2012. The expo was created by Sarah Anderson, director of the education department at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, and a committee comprised of staff and volunteers of the nature museum, as a way for people to have an easy way to learn about volunteer opportunities and get more involved within their communities.
“It was really out of the need that we heard from friends talking about how they wanted to volunteer but they just didn’t know how to start and so, rather than having to search something online or not know what to do, providing opportunity for people to connect face to face and find what interest them and what their passion is is why we thought this event would be a good match,” Anderson said.
Anderson said there are important reasons to volunteer beyond helping your community. “Studies have shown it helps you be healthier both physically and mentally, but I think more important than that is that it builds community. It helps people get to know each other that might not have met before and it’s what makes our city strong.”
Many others attending and volunteering at the expo voiced similar opinions about volunteering, talking about what it means to them. “Volunteering for me is give a little of your time or maybe your love to share with these people, or to create a little bit of a better world,” said Dheys Eraco, another attendee of the expo.
Colin Herzog, a volunteer with the Chinese Mutual Aid Association, said it’s important to sacrifice your time to volunteer. “Volunteering is noticing something that’s outside of your own experience and wanting to be involved in helping make someone else’s experience easier in whatever capacity that may be. So, it’s taking time out of your way to connect and help someone else,” Herzog said. “Honestly, it can take you out of your comfort zone, exposes you to the unknown, and is kind of a point of bravery. It’s a bit of a sacrifice, but you know in the end it was worth it.”