Volunteerism in Polk
By Elizabeth Morrisey

Since 1992, Barb Norton has been volunteering her time to different organizations in Winter Haven. From the Chamber of Commerce to Theatre Winter Haven to the police department and Bok Tower, she’s a Jane of all trades when it comes to giving back.

“I have to be involved,” the 83-year-old says. “I can’t just sit around. I like to be out and know what’s going on.” Her parents instilled in her to work hard and be active in the community. Norton’s longest stint was volunteering at the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce for 16 years helping out at the front desk.

“It’s important because you are giving back,” she explains. “You get acquainted with the community. The area needs lots of volunteers.”

Those looking for ways to find Polk County volunteer opportunities can turn to Volunteer Polk, a county funded program designed to pair volunteers with non-profit partners.

“We are the eHarmony of volunteerism,” says Janet Bartuska, manager of Volunteer Polk. “Our goal is to help improve the quality of life for those who live, work and play in Polk County.”

Local residents young and old can log onto the website and scroll through close to 100 listings. Some organizations include local schools, Meals on Wheels, Circle B Nature Preserve, the Red Cross, museums and food pantries.

“It’s a one-stop-shop,” Bartuska says. “These groups are looking for someone who is passionate about their mission and willing to work as a team.”

Bartuska says the listings change weekly and locals can call the office to inquire about something specific. There are benefits to having all of the listings in one spot. “When someone looks, they get lots of ideas,” she says. “There is a smorgasbord of opportunities.”

Guardian Ad Litem is in desperate need of community volunteers, says the local Recruitment Coordinator Diane Schmelz. The Polk County area has 700 volunteers, but it’s not enough when there are 2,000 children needing assistance. Guardian Ad Litem provides volunteer advocates to help become a voice for children who have been removed from their home due to abuse or neglect. The local office provides training each month.

“It’s really not as overwhelming as people may think,” says Schmelz. “The average case requires seven to eight hours per month. These kids need someone to care.”

Gabby Biernat, a senior at Southeastern University in Lakeland, began volunteering with Guardian Ad Litem as a freshman when she needed field experience for a class. “I have a huge desire to serve people and understand people who are different from me and love them,” she says. “It’s a desire, not an obligation.”

As a double major in criminal justice and legal studies, she found it interesting that Guardian Ad Litem worked with the court system. The trained volunteers are appointed by judges to be advocates for the children. She feels a lot of Southeastern students are seeing how important it is to give back to the community.

Volunteers come from all walks of life, and are young and old. Bartuska says Volunteer Polk is a great resource for middle and high school students who need volunteer hours and academic credit. “Shopping online (for volunteer opportunities) is so convenient. You don’t have to go and make 60 phone calls.”

And Polk definitely likes to give back. In fact, the county has almost 2,500 volunteers in a variety of programs. Those volunteers contributed 50,086 hours throughout the past year and their work was valued at more than $1.1 million, says Bartuska.

“Where volunteerism is strong, you find strong communities,” Bartuska says. “We see it every day. Volunteers impact every phase of life in Polk County. We are all coming to together to help each other. It is the fundamentals our country is based on.”