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Three Volunteer Organizations Working To Transform The Nation

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In "The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers are Transforming America," author Shirley Sagawa, a non-profit consultant, argues that volunteerism can turn America around. She chronicles the stories of real people who have dedicated their lives to service roles. In the following excerpts, Sagawa writes about three organizations where skilled professionals-- mostly unemployed, underemployed, or retired-- are putting their skills to good use:

1. DC Volunteer Lawyers Project

Jenny Brody, Karen Barker Marcou, and Marla Spindel were high-powered lawyers turned stay-at-home moms. With time on their hands, they thought they might take some pro bono cases but soon discovered how difficult it was for an individual lawyer to handle pro bono cases due to the lack of resources--such as a place to meet privately with clients--and the costs of online legal research, litigation expenses, and individual malpractice insurance. Also, they missed the collegiality and support of practicing law with partners who could provide backup in an emergency and discuss practice tips and case strategies together. They found that none of the existing legal services organizations offered all of the resources and support non-law-firm attorneys need to provide high-quality cost-effective representation to indigent clients. Suspecting that there were other at-home lawyers who also wanted to do pro bono work, Brody, Marcou, and Spindel founded the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project in January of 2008 with the goal of addressing the unmet family law needs of low-income people in Washington, D.C., by recruiting, training, and supporting volunteer attorneys.

The DCVLP's first organizational meeting attracted over thirty lawyers from notices on school listservs and by word of mouth. Since then, the DCVLP has grown to over a hundred volunteer lawyers and provided thousands of hours of pro bono legal services to low-income Washingtonians, winning the team recognition as "Stars of the Bar" by the Women's Bar Association of Washington, DC.

UPDATE (courtesy of Sagawa): The DC Volunteer Lawyers Project is growing exponentially, having tapped the resources of stay-at-home moms and unemployed lawyers in the DC area. Its volunteers have helped such people as grandparents trying to adopt their grandchildren, a legal immigrant mother whose rapist tried to take away the child she conceived after the rape, and a 15-year-old mother abused by the teen father of her child.

To learn more, click here or contact Claudia Gwilliam at cgwilliam@dcvlp.org.

2. Music National Service

A singer-songwriter, Kiff Gallagher's previous experience in government and business convinced him to create the MusicianCorps, a national service program to expand access to music education for disadvantaged youths. Gallagher volunteered his time for more than a year to build the program, which was launched in 2009 with twenty-one MusicianCorps Fellows including an accomplished indie folk artist, a civil rights activist turned jazz musician, an award-winning Brazilian singer, and eighteen other multitalented musicians ready to give a year to make a difference for others.

UPDATE: Kiff is a finalist for GQ's Better World competition.

To learn more, click here or contact Kiff Gallagher at kiff@musicnationalservice.org.

3. Give An Hour

From the book: Volunteer medical professionals can help by offering pro bono services. That was the idea behind Give an Hour, founded in September 2005 by Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, a psychologist in the Washington, D.C., area. While the organization's mission is to "develop national networks of volunteers capable of responding to both acute and chronic conditions that arise within our society," currently, the nonprofit is dedicated to meeting the mental health needs of a particularly deserving population: the troops and families affected by the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sadly, more than one hundred thousand combat veterans have sought help for mental illness since the start of the Iraq war, and as many as one in four soldiers who have served in Iraq display symptoms of serious mental health problems such as depression, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Their families also pay a price--one in five married service members has filed for divorce since September 2001, and more than thirty-five thousand families have faced the loss or injury of a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Since its founding, more than forty-four hundred Give an Hour volunteers have provided more than $1.7 million in free services. Give an Hour works like this: mental health providers register with the organization and offer an hour a week of pro bono counseling. Individuals in need of services search the provider list and find the help they need. Once they have been served they are given the opportunity to provide confidential feedback, and they may look for volunteer opportunities that enable them to "give back" as well. While the military offers counseling, many military personnel feel that seeking mental health services will jeopardize their career. Operating outside the military, Give an Hour has created a confidential way to serve military men and women. In addition, the organization provides services to those not eligible to receive health care from the military system, including significant others, parents, and siblings.

UPDATE: As the combat mission ends in Iraq, Give an Hour's services are needed more than ever.

To learn more, click here or contact Lauren Itzkowitz at litzkowitz@giveanhour.org.

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