Northwest Mississippi’s volunteer matchmaker
story by Tonya Thompson | photos by Michael Hensley
$2,028,256.78. If you put a dollar amount to the number of volunteer hours that have been facilitated by Volunteer Northwest Mississippi in the last twelve months, that’s the figure you get — and it’s a number that the Director, Anna Dickerson, hopes will grow exponentially in the next few years. With renewed focus on branding and getting the word out about who they are and what they do, her goal is inching ever closer.
In an attempt to switch gears in a law career that made her feel “boxed in,” 29-year-old Dickerson, a Vicksburg, Mississippi native and former family law attorney, applied for the position of Director of Volunteer Northwest Mississippi in December of 2011 and knew immediately that she had made the right move. An articulate woman who is playfully labeled the “do-gooder” of the relationship by her husband, Dickerson found that serving her community became a life-altering decision that changed her own understanding of the needs of those around her. The couple currently resides in Southaven and has accepted the fact that although their career paths are divergent, they can still fully support each other.
"I am so proud of Anna's work at Volunteer Northwest Mississippi,” says her husband, Jake Dickerson, an attorney with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz. “From her coordination of the mobile food distributions, to her organization of countless volunteers for local nonprofits, to her nonprofit trainings, she has a very tangible and positive impact on the lives of thousands of people in Northwest Mississippi. I don't know of any career that affords that much community-service-based satisfaction. Anna's natural leadership abilities, combined with her hard work and determination, make her the best possible person to maximize the good that can come from her job.”
That job, which consists of coordinating the influx of volunteers during the popular months, as well as reaching out to new recruits during the rest of the year, is something that the organization’s Director does with ease. Tom Pittman, President of the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, has been particularly impressed with Dickerson’s hands-on approach. "We appreciate the warm and efficient way that Anna has expanded the work of our volunteer center,” says Pittman. “She has enabled thousands of local residents to make an impact on the lives of their community. It’s another way that we connect people who care with causes that matter.”
It is through this role of connection point that Volunteer Northwest Mississippi makes such a significant impact. Housed in the office of the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi in Hernando, Volunteer Northwest Mississippi was established in 2006 and became the first volunteer center for the northwest region. Dickerson and her team currently work with over 200 nonprofits in DeSoto County — as well as Coahoma, Marshall, Quitman, Panola, Tate, Tallahatchie and Tunica counties — providing volunteer recruitment, nonprofit trainings, volunteer management training and more.
Through the scope of its services, Volunteer Northwest Mississippi is steadily pursuing an ambition of being the Match.com of volunteerism in the area, and they are doing it by matching willing volunteers to volunteer opportunities that are available across a wide range of nonprofit organizations. “Volunteer Northwest Mississippi is the volunteer center for DeSoto County,” says Dickerson. “Our mission is to develop, promote and support volunteerism by serving as a collection point for all volunteer opportunities in the area.”
Among the many things that make Volunteer Northwest Mississippi stand out as an exemplary organization is the way in which it locates volunteers for organizations that might have a difficult time finding assistance otherwise. According to Dickerson, these volunteer opportunities at smaller, locally-owned and operated nonprofits might not be what immediately come to mind when people think of volunteering. “When people think volunteering, they automatically think of the larger organizations,” says Dickerson. “And don’t get me wrong, these larger organizations need volunteers. But sometimes, people don’t realize that there are also a lot of little ‘mom and pop’ places that really need their support, as well. Any amount of time is worth it to these organizations, whether it’s two hours a week or twenty hours a week.”
When asked about the facet of her work that she is most proud of, Dickerson immediately referred to Volunteer Northwest Mississippi’s coordinated food distribution efforts, which take place each month at the Landers Center in Southaven. “It’s a remarkable number,” says Dickerson. “Over 16,000 families in DeSoto County have been fed through this program. I work with over 100 volunteers each month from FedEx Ground, Trustmark, Walgreens, Bancorp South, church groups and school groups. Ninety percent of my volunteers are return volunteers — they give four hours of their time and get so much back. It’s helped us to expose a need in DeSoto County that many people think doesn’t exist. You can see the lines each month and see that it exists.”
The need exposed by the food distribution program alone might be surprising to many who think of DeSoto County as one of the most affluent sections of the state. However, anyone who has ever worked in the local nonprofit sector understands firsthand that things are not always as they seem on the surface. In fact, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Mississippi and Arkansas have the highest food insecurity rates in the nation, with both states topping the chart at 19.2 percent of the population being food insecure. As one of several organizations in the area meeting this need, since May of 2012, Volunteer Northwest Mississippi has distributed 228,724 pounds of food to approximately 21,000 DeSoto County residents who stood in line to request assistance.
In addition to the extraordinary efforts required to hold the monthly food drive, during the past 15 months, Volunteer Northwest Mississippi has recruited approximately 11,443 volunteers. According to Dickerson’s estimations, within that same span of time, these volunteers have donated 83,082 hours to nonprofit organizations in need within DeSoto County, as well as seven other surrounding counties.
So the question remains: How does one organization with six employees make that level of volunteerism coordination happen? The way Volunteer Northwest Mississippi operates, particularly its online database, facilitates volunteer “matching.” “We have an online database where you can create a username and password, and see in a calendar view everything going on over the next few months,” says Dickerson. “If you see something you’re interested in, you can click on it and it will tell you where to go, who to contact and what time to show up.”
Dickerson adds that Volunteer Northwest Mississippi doesn’t do a lot of “hand holding.” When a potential volunteer is given the information and the required contact, it is up to him or her to reach out to that nonprofit and set up the volunteer hours. This increased accountability helps Volunteer Northwest Mississippi remain an important mediator but leaves it up to the volunteer to go through with the act.
In addition to providing a user-friendly online database, Volunteer Northwest Mississippi also coordinates large volunteer groups, such as churches or schools, matching multiple volunteers to opportunities for a group-wide day of service. For a volunteer who has specific skills or expertise, Volunteer Northwest Mississippi will also assist with finding the perfect volunteer opportunity that makes use of those abilities. “We are the connecting point,” says Dickerson, reiterating the organization’s mission. “Volunteer Northwest Mississippi is here to help our community get involved.”
If you or your group would like to be connected with volunteer opportunities through Volunteer Northwest Mississippi, contact Anna Dickerson, Director, at 662.449.5002 or to find out how you can get involved. Also visit the online volunteer database by going to www.volunteernwms.org.