Symbiotic Volunteerism: Building Community Strength Upon Individual Strength

Community - reducedBy Joyce Lee-Ibarra

Who do you consider the most vulnerable members of society?

For many of us, the young and the elderly spring to mind. In the context of volunteerism, youth and seniors are often thought of as the recipients, rather than the providers, of volunteer services. At-risk children, for instance, fill a common narrative as the recipients of mentoring or tutoring services. Low-income seniors, meanwhile, might be imagined awaiting a Meals-on-Wheels delivery, or perhaps sitting quietly in a nursing home, anticipating a weekly visit from volunteer visitors.

What if we turned those familiar notions on their heads?

What if we were to pair these two “needy” populations through volunteering, and grew community strength from individual need?

What if we were able to add -1 to -1, and come up with +2?

I recently came across a terrific example of “intergenerational reciprocity” in Bridge Meadows, a housing development in Portland, Oregon that provides homes to adoptive families of foster children as well as low-income seniors. What binds these neighbors together is that the seniors must volunteer at least 10 hours per week with the foster children and their families to qualify for reduced-rent apartments.

Far beyond the housing provided, both groups benefit from the symbiotic relationship nourished by their time spent together. The foster children thrive under the additional interaction and care the seniors provide, while the seniors enjoy the affection and social connection the children bring.

What speaks to me most about this innovative housing community is not merely its development of authentic symbiosis between foster families and low-income seniors. It’s that the model takes for granted that both “vulnerable” groups possess tremendous strengths, rather than focusing on their deficits. By assuming the presence of—and working from—each group’s strengths, we honor and dignify those groups, and give them power and agency to shape the communities of which they are a part.

Perhaps more importantly, the model addresses the often uncomfortable undercurrent of some volunteer relationships—the power dynamic of noblesse oblige, that the “recipients” of volunteers’ largesse are somehow beholden to their “providers.” Rather than reinforcing a unidirectional flow of volunteerism, Bridge Meadows demonstrates a virtuous circle of reciprocity. And by reimagining the “needy” as a wellspring of generosity, support, and compassion, Bridge Meadows has found a way to harness the complementary needs of individuals, giving them the power to engage, build, and bind community.

How else might we reimagine “providers” and “recipients” of volunteerism?

In what other ways can volunteering serve as a vehicle for connection, contribution, and reciprocity among those labeled as “in need”?

And what examples have you seen in your own lives, where community members are seen for their gifts and strengths, helping each other without labels?

Since 2003, Joyce Lee-Ibarra has served as a development consultant, providing grant writing, program evaluation, and academic research and writing services to a range of community benefit organizations and public sector agencies. To learn more about Joyce and her work, visit JLI Consulting.

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