by Emilie Gille

The online platform can also track students’ experiential learning service

The Athens Community Council on Aging depends on volunteers to help provide services to older adults in the Clarke County area.

When the pandemic hit in March, almost half of the volunteers—many of them older adults themselves—had to stop volunteering in order to protect themselves from the virus.

At the same time, the need in the community for ACCA services was increasing.

Using the University of Georgia’s “Engage GA” online platform, the ACCA was able to find other volunteers to fill the void.

“We had no online volunteer onboarding or scheduling presence except for our website,” said Ellen Everitt, ACCA volunteer coordinator. “Now, we have a page where people can see what we’re doing and what they can do to help.”

The UGA Office of Service-Learning used an online program called GivePulse to develop the local, online platform called Engage GA. Through Engage GA, organizations can publicize their need for volunteers, and community residents, including students, can find volunteer opportunities. In addition, the platform allows faculty members to track a student’s engagement in experiential learning, now a requirement for graduation.

As of October, students had logged over 117,931 verified service hours online through Engage GA, with 35,406 hours in 2019 alone.

Nina Sassano, an educator and intern coordinator with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, set up an online time sheet tracking system in Engage GA for student interns and fellows.

“They can submit their hours for me to approve as well as share an experience or photos from their day that stood out, which we’re able to use later to showcase the program,” Sassano said.

Wide array of users

County government offices, nonprofits and student organizations are among the platform’s users.

Local nonprofit Books for Keeps, which provides books to children who might not otherwise have them, has been using the online platform for over three years to manage volunteer shifts, promote volunteer opportunities, meet new people and connect with other service organizations, said program manager Justin Bray.

“A nonprofit, campus organization or department can engage with both their campus community and their local community in the same online platform with ease.” — Josh Podvin

“We’re a small organization, there’s only three of us, so we’re able to punch above our weight class, so to speak, because we have automated and streamlined processes through [Engage GA],” Bray said.

The data stored in the platform can show the impact of a specific event, course or span of time, which can be useful for annual reporting, grant-writing and promotions.

“A nonprofit, campus organization or department can engage with both their campus community and their local community in the same online platform with ease,” said Josh Podvin, the UGA OSL assistant director for community partnerships, who manages Engage GA.

Keeping it simple

For volunteer organizers, the platform makes the management of volunteer data simple and keeps it all in one place, which is a big benefit, said Cecile Riker, program education specialist for the Athens Clarke County Stormwater Management Program.

Riker has been using Engage GA for nearly three years for online volunteer recruitment and retention, and event promotion and planning for small and large-scale events like Rivers Alive, an annual program that draws community volunteers to clear trash and debris from Athens-area rivers, lakes and streams.

“For Rivers Alive we usually have anywhere between 300 and 450 volunteers, but with this year’s circumstances, we knew things were going to need to be a bit different,” Riker said. Engage GA “really helped us communicate all our COVID-19 guidelines ahead of time and allowed us to register volunteers in small groups in advance in a completely contactless way.”

The ACCA has added 150 new volunteers since the pandemic began, enabling the organization to serve 2,000 clients—almost three times the number served before.

“We have 59 food delivery routes now and [Engage GA] has been so handy for managing that along with our phone buddy and card writing volunteer slots,” Everitt said. “It’s been a really great organization tool.”

Engage GA helps Athens community find volunteers