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Smoothing the path to volunteerism

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Sara Rose Roman

Sara Rose Roman

Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. — As a child and as a high-school student, Sara Rose Roman had an active volunteer life.

She and her family fostered stray or surrendered dogs and cats, and took in injured squirrels, and beginning at age 11, the Durham native began raising puppies to become guide dogs for the blind or service dogs for people with disabilities.

And with community service now a major part of the college experience, her time at Meredith College in Raleigh was filled with volunteering.

But after graduation, Roman, now a 25-year-old behavior therapist for kids with autism, struggled to find the right volunteer opportunities.

“My friends and I were overwhelmed by all the great organizations out there,” she says. “We weren’t sure where to get started and the whole process of getting involved was overwhelming.”

They longed for a fun, easy way to get involved, she says.

So in true Generation Y fashion, the group set up a Facebook page in August of 2009 that outlined a volunteer event designed for young professionals and began spreading the word.

The first of what would become a monthly event took place in September 2009, with about 25 people showing up to act as buddies at a game hosted by the Miracle League of the Triangle, a nonprofit that helps children with special needs play baseball.

“It was a super-fun first event for us,” says Roman. “It was all Facebook. I invited everyone on my friends list and word spread.”

About 20 months and 20 events later, the effort has evolved into Change the Triangle, an incorporated organization that is filing for nonprofit status.

About 40 people show up for each event, many of them repeat attendees along with a handful of newcomers, all typically between the ages of 21 and 35, although there are no strict age requirements.

Change the Triangle’s volunteer staff identifies a monthly group-volunteer opportunity, arranges all the details with the host organization, fires up the social-media alerts and even tacks on a post-event social activity.

Attendees need only show up, work hard and have fun.

“What makes us different is that we focus both on the social and community aspects of it,” says Roman. “It’s a great group of people who want to give back, and being a community makes us stronger as volunteers.”

In addition to a few outings with the Miracle League, activities have included a trash-collection day at Jordan Lake and a day working on a Habitat for Humanity home.

Next month, Change the Triangle will sort inventory for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, followed by a trip to a local restaurant.

And in August the group will purchase, fill and deliver about 40 backpacks to children of clients at Raleigh’s StepUP Ministry, which helps families become self sufficient.

Roman aims to provide a variety of events that, over time, will appeal to different people, and the projects themselves are designed be hands-on activities where participants can see the difference they are making.

“Young adults have so much energy and they want to give back,” says Roman. “We just hope to provide them with a way to do that.”

And while these monthly events provide a much needed boost to Triangle-area nonprofits, Roman says that in some cases they lead to longer-term relationships between individuals and organizations.

“We’ve had a number of people who go to an event and then continue on their own,” she says. “This experience gives them the confidence to volunteer on their own.”

Over time, Roman plans to increase the number of events to weekly or every other week, and would like to expand beyond the Triangle.

And she’s interested in organizing separate volunteer events, coupled with social activities, for teenagers.

“In college there are so many opportunities,” she says. “If we can get people started before college, they’ll be ready, and then we can catch them after college. We could be the before and after.”

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