Twin Cities' helping hands lead nation

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 10, 2011 - 1:34 AM

For five years now, the metro area has topped federal rankings in volunteering, with 37.1 percent of residents involved in 2010.

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Twin Cities volunteers lead the nation for a fifth straight year, finding new and different ways to lend a hand.

While other cities across the nation saw a dip in volunteering last year, more people here donated their time to help others in 2010, according to a new study from the federal government's Corporation for National and Community Service.

"I was very pleased but not surprised," said Sue Moyer, Caring Connection manager for Greater Twin Cities United Way. "We have a very deep commitment to volunteerism."

According to the national report, 37.1 percent of Twin Cities residents volunteered in 2010, up from 36.6 percent in 2009, topping other communities such as Seattle and Salt Lake City And among volunteers who are 65 and older, the Twin Cities was No. 1. In all the other age categories, the Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota ranked above the national average for volunteering.

So why are we so helpful?

Volunteerism rises with education and home ownership, and a high percentage of Twin Cities residents can check both those boxes, said Robert Velasco, II, acting chief executive officer for the Community Service corporation. Shorter commutes in the Twin Cities also give residents a little more time to volunteer.

But mostly, volunteering is just what Minnesotans do.

At least that's what Mark Peterson found out 25 years ago when he set a goal of leading a nonprofit social service agency, preferably in beautiful Southern California.

But returning to Detroit after a 20th annual alumni reunion at St. Olaf College, Peterson and his wife couldn't stop talking about two things that their Minnesota classmates seemed to hold dear.

"They had an assumption that in a society we have responsibility to care for one another," Peterson said. "And what really knocked our socks off was a more radical notion that they believe that when we apply ourselves, we can make things right."

So Peterson scratched Southern California and has been the head of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota for the past 25 years. Peterson has retold that story often, but few locals seemed surprised by the revelation. He said "People nod and they say, 'Yah. And what's your point? Of course, that's the way it is here.'"

The corporate culture also contributes, said Julie Dyste, Caring Connection program coordinator for the Greater Twin Cities United Way. A number of local companies not only encourage employees to volunteer but often allow them to do so during working hours, she said.

A growing trend among companies is to bring volunteer projects to the corporate campus, she said. For example, employees will spend their lunch hour putting together educational and activity kits for children. Or they might put together laundry detergent packets for low-income people because government subsidies cover food, but not laundry soap, Dyste said.

She also has noticed that more people are volunteering professional services, including accountants who help low-income people fill out tax forms and engineers who build equipment for people with disabilities.

But the largest number of Twin Cities volunteers are involved in feeding the hungry.

"We're a very caring community," Dyste said. "People here are very generous with their time."

Staff Writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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