When a Columbus-area organization collected handmade Valentine’s Day cards to deliver to area nursing homes, members of Columbus Gives Back pulled out their markers, glue sticks and glitter and got to work.
When Meals on Wheels dinners needed to be packed, food at area shelters needed to be served or people with disabilities needed dance partners, Columbus Gives Back stepped up again.
And those contributions were all made within a single week this month.
Columbus Gives Back provides one-time service opportunities for busy young professionals as they build careers and start families. Group membership requires no weekly or monthly time commitments, no orientations, no training sessions and no lengthy applications.
“If you’re free, you can just sign up for an event,” said Amanda Shafer, 30, president of Columbus Gives Back.
Young professionals, she said, “might not be ready to donate a lot of money because they are early in their career, but time can be just as valuable. There seems to be a lot of interest in that age range.”
Nine years ago, when Juliana Hardymon invited young professionals via a Craigslist post to join her in making a spaghetti dinner for guests at the Unverferth House (where families of patients at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center stay), she couldn’t have imagined the effort growing to what Columbus Gives Back has become.
In 2017, nearly 300 individuals attended at least one event (and an average of three events). In December, the group — which hosts about 20 events a month — celebrated its 1,000th service project.
“I was hoping it would be a meet-up group of sorts, but the fact that it’s a sustainable organization that’s doing tremendous good in the community has been the biggest surprise,” Hardymon said. “I’ve been surprised by how willing people are to try something unseen and how many people are actively looking to volunteer.”
Although the 34-year-old mom, who works in finance, started the organization, she credits much of its success to those who have overseen it in recent years, since she has stepped out of leadership roles.
They’ve simply run away with the concept, Hardymon said.
Columbus Gives Back was precisely what West Side resident Curt Roginski was looking for when he searched for volunteer opportunities online.
The 42-year-old Huntington Bank employee had volunteered a few times through his job, but he wanted to make such contributions more of a priority. Through Columbus Gives Back, he has volunteered at three or four events a month.
“I can look at what’s going on this week and easily go online and sign up,” said Roginski, who has done everything from bake cookies at the Ronald McDonald House to play games with residents at the Downtown YMCA.
“A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have thought about (volunteering) that often — maybe once or twice a year,” he said. “But the group makes it second nature, like going to the movies.”
He especially enjoys the “social twist” that the organization brings to volunteering.
After each meeting, he and other event leaders plan a gathering at a bar or restaurant. Once a month, the group hosts a happy hour to which members take items to donate to a charity.
“We might be casually going out for drinks, but we’re still giving back,” Roginski said.
Several of the service projects — YMCA game night, Meals on Wheels preparation, blanket making for foster children through My Very Own Blanket — take place monthly or bimonthly, and others are much more sporadic, Shafer said.
Recently, for example, members painted a mural symbolizing unity at Wedgewood Middle School in the Hilltop and taught children archery at one of the Metro Parks.
“Any nonprofit or charitable cause that could use a group of volunteers — we usually keep it between five and 15 volunteers, so you can get to know one another — we’re happy to put together a group and send to them,” Shafer said. “Each volunteer has a different interest. Maybe they are really artistic and might want to attend that mural event, or they’re into cooking and want to work in the back at Meals on Wheels prepping food.”
Isaiah Shalwitz laughed as he recalled how he and other volunteers once held a gigantic snowflake balloon in a holiday parade at Easton Town Center. He began volunteering with the group about six months ago.
“I wanted to see if it would add some spice to my life — and that’s what it’s done,” said Shalwitz, 36, of the Short North. “There’s something new every week.”
He enjoys that he’s able to volunteer despite his erratic schedule: “It appeals to my lifestyle.”
The nonprofit groups served by Columbus Gives Back appreciate the help.
Pauli Tice, director of volunteer services at LifeCare Alliance, said the volunteer group has sent 10 people to help with Meals on Wheels preparation two Monday nights a month since 2011.
“You always know you have a group coming,” Tice said. “They really do whatever we need them to do.”
The monthly game nights at the Downtown YMCA were introduced seven years ago in partnership with Columbus Gives Back, said Amanda Frankl, director of grants and compliance at the YMCA (and a former volunteer with Columbus Gives Back).
The event gives the residents something to look forward to, she said.
“The volunteers are always interested and looking to understand our community and services we provide,” Frankl said. “They really want to learn (the residents’) stories. They see them as individuals.
“That’s really impactful.”