If you live in Fort Wayne, odds are you’ve driven by the Volunteer Center more than a few times and wondered what they do. It turns out they do a lot.

Tucked away in an office park at 3401 Lake Avenue you’ll find a small, but dedicated staff with a common goal of making our community better every day.

“We are blessed with an incredible group of people,” says Executive Director Ani Etter. “We have great stability here. People come to work and they stay. That really, really makes our agency better.”

Connecting potential volunteers with nonprofits, civic-based, and faith-based community organizations is at the core of what they do.

Volunteer Center Executive Director Ani Etter at her desk.

Etter describes the organization as a conduit for the community. “I tell people we’re kind of like a dating site for volunteers because we make those connections happen and create relationships between volunteers and agencies.”

The services they provide couldn’t be more needed as the country recovers from the global pandemic. The pandemic hit the most vulnerable individuals and organizations that serve them hardest.

“One in four people in the United States volunteer right now, but that is down,” says Program Outreach Coordinator Camille Garrison. “Unfortunately when Covid hit, we lost a lot of volunteers that haven’t come back.”

Volunteer Center Program Outreach Coordinator Camille Garrison

It’s prompted more organizations to turn to the expertise the Volunteer Center provides to get their message out.

Neil Miller is the Program Manager of Greenways and Trails for the City of Fort Wayne. “We’re a staff of two within the city who manage over a hundred miles of trails,” he says. “We recently partnered with the Volunteer Center and they’ve made our jobs easier. They’re helping us to connect with people who are already using our trails and want to help.”

Neil Miller, Program Director for Fort Wayne Greenways & Trails, partners with the Volunteer Center and is also a volunteer himself.

Miller lauds the effort of the people at the Volunteer Center. “They are wonderful people. They are the experts in volunteer care in Fort Wayne. It’s an amazing program they run and we’re super thankful to be able to partner with them.”

Testimonials like Miller’s are music to the ears of Etter because it proves the program and approach is working. She’s been involved with the Volunteer Center since 2001 before they became their own self-incorporated nonprofit in 2004.

Volunteering has changed and evolved over the years. While seniors still make up the majority of volunteers, Etter says they are reaching younger people looking to make a difference. “We live in a whole different world,” she says. “Flexibility is the name of the game now.”

The Volunteer Center staff accepts a check from 3Rivers Federal Credit Union.

“I tell people volunteering doesn’t have to take a lot of time. It can be as simple as helping one hour a week, or every other week. We are completely flexible.”

Finding the right match is where Garrison’s expertise comes into play. “I always tell people we have to find your passion. What makes you excited? Then we try to match that volunteer with their passion.”

Garrison says the feeling she gets when a volunteer is matched with the right mission never gets old. “It gives me goosebumps when that happens because that’s our whole mission, to connect those people.”

Getting involved couldn’t be easier. Volunteerfortwayne.org is like a one-stop shop to get registered and see what’s available with their 126 partner agencies. “There is something for everyone,” Etter says. “You don’t need a special skill to be a volunteer. Everybody can contribute. I think that’s really the message at heart.”

Miller, not only benefits from the organization, but he’s also a volunteer himself. “It’s the most rewarding thing you can do. I would recommend to anybody if you have any time to give, try volunteering and find something that works for you. It might not be the trail system, but there are so many different opportunities out there and the Volunteer Center is a great place to look into all of this.”

Administrative Assistant Liz Merkler holds down the front desk.

The latest Value of Volunteer Time Report estimates the value of a volunteer hour is worth $29.95 an hour. In 2022, the Volunteer Center helped connect over 1,200 volunteers that logged 94,839 volunteer hours. That adds up to an economic impact of $2,840,428!

“That has great significance to me,” says Etter. “Because at the end of the day, whether it’s a good day or a bad day, I know that we have made a difference for a lot of people.”

April is National Volunteer Month. Next month, Positively Fort Wayne will spotlight a local volunteer who used the Volunteer Center and now volunteers at four different agencies.

It’s easy to see why the Volunteer Center is Positively Fort Wayne!