“Just a Volunteer”: Supporting An Agency’s Volunteer Program through Difficult Times

By now, the benefits of citizen law enforcement volunteer programs are well established. However, the stories above illustrate one aspect of these programs that rarely, if ever, gets discussed: the inevitable illness and death among an agency’s volunteer staff. Most civilian volunteer programs rely heavily on retired folks who begin their involvement in their 50s, 60s, or 70s, and it is not uncommon for volunteers to remain with an agency for 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, or more. Some agencies have programs that partner with the American Association of Retired Persons and other senior organizations, and some programs are designed exclusively to accept seniors for volunteer service. During their course of service, it is inevitable that serious or terminal health issues will arise and with far more frequency than among paid staff because of the age demographics. Sometimes, these volunteers have no family living close by or have no family at all, which makes their association with the agency even more important as they move through this life phase. Over the years of working together, staff members and volunteers frequently develop real friendships that are impacted by life events. In particular, the nature of volunteer program coordinators’ jobs means that they most likely have established close relationships with each and every volunteer, whereas individual staff members may be close to only the volunteer with whom they work. In either case, the cumulative emotional toll among staff of watching their volunteer coworkers age, become ill, and pass away can be devastating. This is not a topic people like to discuss, but how an agency reacts to and handles volunteer losses has a very real effect on everyone involved. It says a lot about how much an agency values its volunteer program.