Commentary: Volunteers strengthen the community's safety net

By Daniel J. Hilferty

and Bill Roberson

National Volunteer Week, which began on Sunday, was established by President Richard Nixon in 1974 to recognize the incredible social and economic impact volunteers make. Coincidentally, that was the same year the first Ronald McDonald House was founded here in Philadelphia.

In 2014, roughly 62.8 million Americans spent 7.9 billion hours volunteering, and the Independent Sector estimates the value of those efforts at nearly $184 billion. And, while impressive, that dollar amount does not capture the change, comfort, or compassion volunteers bring to our communities.

As a global organization leveraging the support of tens of thousands of volunteers to serve families at their most vulnerable, Ronald McDonald House Charities understands the difference a single volunteer can make. Families from the region and across the globe uproot their lives to travel to Philadelphia, home to some of the best health care in the world. Ronald McDonald House volunteers offer those families a place to sleep close to the hospital where children are receiving treatments or meeting with specialists. They help us create an entire community of true, holistic support.

Fifteen years ago, Independence Blue Cross established its "Blue Crew" program to support our associates, their families, and retirees who volunteer to make our region a better place to work, live, and play. Now, nearly 1,000 Blue Crew volunteers donate more than 8,000 hours in support of 320 service projects annually - one of the largest of which is serving the region's Ronald McDonald Houses.

In a partnership dating back to 2002, Blue Crew volunteers have witnessed how a single home-cooked meal or a recreational activity can boost a child's morale and provide a family with the energy and strength they need after a long day at the hospital. In 2015, Blue Crew volunteers contributed more than 500 hours to Ronald McDonald Houses, preparing and serving potluck dinners to families each month.

We are fortunate that, as our "Brotherly Love" nickname suggests to the world, Philadelphians and residents throughout the region are becoming more and more passionate about volunteerism. In fact, in 2014, Philadelphia's volunteer rate climbed to 28.4 percent - the highest mark in more than a decade. But there is more work to do.

As we celebrate National Volunteer Week, we invite you to join us this week and beyond in our mission to help enhance the health and well-being of the people and communities in the region. Let's make it our goal to increase volunteerism in our communities to 50 percent, then 70 percent and beyond.

Whether it's helping at a local food pantry or reading to children, we challenge you to pursue a volunteer opportunity that you are passionate about - one that aligns with your goals or core beliefs, like Independence has with the Ronald McDonald House. And we call on businesses and organizations to elevate volunteerism within their own priorities, providing their employees with resources and support in giving back.

Volunteers strengthen the safety net of our communities. They help support some of the most vulnerable individuals and families while enabling nonprofit organizations to address pressing community needs. Volunteers are changing the lives of those around them.

So, during National Volunteer Week, become one. Find opportunities based on your location and interests via a number of websites, including Serve.gov, and join us in making the most valuable difference.

Daniel J. Hilferty is president and CEO of Independence Blue Cross. newsroom@ibx.com

Bill Roberson is president of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Philadelphia region. info@rmhcphilly.com