Some U.S. jobless find hope and solace as volunteers

Tue Feb 24, 2009 12:15pm EST
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By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - When out-of-work accountant Jim Ammon tires of scouring for scarce job listings, he takes out his frustrations by driving in nails for new houses he volunteers to build for the working poor.

Laura Spelke volunteers at the United Way charity in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in part to escape the sting of losing her sales job: "Volunteering is a way to stay active and stay in touch and not sit home and eat bonbons feeling sorry for myself."

Jennifer Whiddon, a Mobile, Alabama, public relations expert laid off from two jobs in the past year, volunteers out of both selflessness and self-interest: "Being around people who are still working and letting them know my situation is actually encouraging to me. In the end, I know making the connections will pay off."

Anecdotal evidence indicates that some among the swelling ranks of the unemployed -- the U.S. jobless rate hit a 16-year high of 7.6 percent and is expected to climb -- are offering their services for free to nonprofits ranging from church-run food pantries to groups that assign mentors to children.

But hard numbers are difficult to find.

Applications to Projects Abroad, a private organization that directs thousands of volunteers to developing countries, jumped 55 percent in December and nearly 50 percent in January compared to a year earlier. Volunteers must pay their own way.

The group's founder, Peter Slowe, said a growing proportion of new applicants are middle-aged people who find themselves unemployed or underemployed and have long thought about testing their abilities, or are just fed up.

"It's the push factor: 'we might get a salary cut, the job's at risk ... the shop's not making any money, the farm's not making money.' Those are the kind of motivations rather than just being chucked out of work," Slowe said.   Continued...

<p>Volunteer Linda Robb fills up a bag with food at the "Bread for the City" food pantry in Washington, December 23, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young</p>