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Life Arts

Cynthia Bowers, Full-Time Volunteer, Gives a Piece of Herself

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My guest today is Cynthia Bowers, founder of Phoenix Volunteers. Welcome to OpEdNews. What started you down the path of giving back, Cynthia?

In 2007, I became aware of the thousands of people, including children, who die every year waiting for organ transplants. I started looking into anonymous organ donation and discovered there was no program in Arizona for an anonymous adult to donate an organ to save the life of a child on the transplant list. I had already decided I wanted to donate in a big way and I recognized this as my chance. Medical testing I had undergone indicated that I was a good match for an 11-year-old boy who was dying of kidney failure at Phoenix Children's Hospital. It became a mission of mine to save his life. The process of creating a donor program and the medical testing for me and the boy took over a year, but in December 2008 I had the honor of donating my left kidney to the boy, whom I have never met but think of often especially this time of year.

It changed my life. It completely uprooted every plan and goal I ever had for myself and pushed me unquestionably into a path of community advocacy.

Wow. That's quite a story, Cynthia. So, how exactly did your life change, after you shared your kidney with this unknown child and created a donor program in Arizona?

Well, first off, I quit my job and started to volunteer full time. Next I started to write and speak about community advocacy, acts of kindness, and about the importance of taking personal responsibility for our communities and each other. Then, using previous work experience in designing work flow for web-based interactive programs, I created two websites that help streamline the process of matching volunteers to community needs. The website for Phoenix Volunteers helps individuals and community groups connect to volunteer opportunities. The other not-for-profit website service, Employee Reach, Inc., helps companies connect their employees to community outreach needs and tracks their service so that companies have a measurable way to track their social impact in the community.

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In other words, I started to put into action ways to connect people to giving. This has become my full time job, although the paycheck is very small. Like nothing.

Change, in general, is hard. But quitting your job in order to volunteer full time must have been doubly hard. What were you doing professionally beforehand? And how were you able to subsequently pay the mortgage, buy groceries, get medical care without an income? I like where you've gone; I'd just like to know more about how you've gotten there. Before we talk about the nonprofits you've set up, please fill us in a little more on this, Cynthia.

You are a storyteller, Joan. This I can tell!

Why, thank you!

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My professional background includes Counseling and Human Relations Management in both for-profit and not-for-profit companies. I served five years working with the executive team at the largest homeless shelter in Arizona where I was certified in counseling techniques and worked with homeless families. I also spent nine years in Employee Relations at two of the largest Phoenix-based technology Fortune 500 companies.

After the surgery, in late 2008, the economy was at an all time low. I was thankful for a job and was careful not to take too much time to recover. In fact, I answered an email from my boss on my blackberry the night I woke up from surgery. My husband and I sensed that things were about to get worse so we paid down debt and built up our savings. Seven months after my surgery, in July 2009, my husband lost his job with a company he worked at for 13 years. A talented and positive-thinking person, he found a job a few months later - thankfully. Still, that event shook my plans and drew into question my call to serve others, forcing me to focus on taking care of my own family for the time being. My desire for giving wasn't lost, but I settled for volunteering on the weekends and making sure there was food on the table for my two kids, ages one and five at that time.

Cynthia, right after surgery

I continued working for another year, full time at first, until my husband felt there was some security in his new job. Then I started to work part-time, volunteering and building the non-profits the rest of the time. Finally, in August 2010 I took the great leap of faith and quit a modest paying, seemingly stable job. It still smarts sometimes, Joan. There are certainly days, like maybe this one, when my computer crashes and my "big" meeting this morning gets cancelled that I think to myself, Why don't I just give this up and go get a job! But, later this week I will be volunteering with a group of people, some who volunteer a lot and who I see often. Others are new and it may be their first time volunteering. This volunteer event will bring us together to be of service to strangers in another country who suffer from malnutrition, maybe they are even starving. I know that the work I am doing makes this possible. I keep going.

Thank you, Cynthia. I have a much better feel for you now. That is a great leap of faith, indeed, when you have two small children and bills to pay. Let's talk a bit about your two nonprofits. Where would you like to get started?

Phoenix Volunteers painting a house to be used as a safe refuge for run-away teens

Both not-for-profits aim to promote volunteerism and acts of kindness in the community. Phoenix Volunteers contacts local nonprofits to find out what volunteer and donation needs they have and then we schedule volunteer events to meet those needs. We post the events on an easy-to-use website, making it simple for people in the community to find a nonprofit that needs their help. Using our website, we promote the nonprofits where we serve so that we can raise awareness of the social issues in Arizona. Since our first event in May 2009, we have contributed over 1,400 hours of volunteer service to local nonprofits. Phoenix Volunteers is run completely by volunteers; we have no paid staff, including myself.

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Several times while volunteering and speaking in the community, I met employees and business owners who are looking for ways to involve their companies in corporate giving and employee volunteerism. I found that, although many companies are strategizing about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), some are not executing their social outreach plans to their full potential.

Employee Reach is a not-for-profit social outreach program that helps companies cultivate and communicate their CSR efforts so that they can be leaders in a pay-it-forward momentum that influences and inspires their employees, partners and clients. We connect employees to a variety of different ways to volunteer, allowing them to choose social causes that engage them personally. We track the number of volunteer hours and various causes employees support so that companies can measure their social impact on the community. We also track employee feedback about volunteering, assist with volunteer recognition, help strategize about corporate giving and assist with internal and external communications about CSR.

And, as great as this is for companies and their inspired employees, it's even better for the not-for-profits that benefit from these type of corporate outreach programs.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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