Volunteer State

Memphian gives back to community every day in November


Sarah Petschonek grew up with the importance of volunteering instilled in her by her parents.

Blogger Sarah Petschonek, center, delivers gifts to a Meritan client during a home visit with Meritan case manager Latasha McKinney, left. Petschonek is volunteering at a different place each day in November.  

(Photos: Lance Murphey)

As children, she and her two younger siblings would pull a wagon around the Jacksonville, Fla., neighborhood where she grew up, handing out fliers and picking up canned goods for food drives.

“I think there’s an important lesson there, it’s not just that we did it but that they took the time to tell me why we were doing it,” Petschonek said. “When you’re 8 years old and you go to a private school and everyone around you has everything that they need, it blows your mind when you realize there are 8 year olds that don’t have food every day.”

It’s a revelation that has stuck with her and shaped her. It compelled her to volunteer throughout her years at Houston High School once her family moved to Memphis, and through college at the University of Memphis where she attained undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees.

At 30, having left a job in Nashville to move back to Memphis, Petschonek found herself looking at several months without work and was searching for ways in which to fill the time.

Volunteering, reflexively, was part of a plan that would grow into what she calls “Mission Memphis: 30 Days of Volunteering.” The idea was to volunteer with a different organization every day for the month of November.

“I’ve always liked it and I’ve met so many people that don’t, which is kind of hard for me to understand,” Petschonek said. “But I know a lot of people have had bad experiences, so I wanted to see how I could take a large chunk of time and somehow use that to encourage other people to get more interested in volunteering and maybe try it again for the second or third time.”

Initially, she had trouble finding a centralized location where she could learn about a range of volunteering opportunities. The logistics became daunting and discouraging, but, she said, “I couldn’t get rid of the idea, I just kept thinking about it.”

Whether or not she could fill each day was a question, but those days filled up quickly and by the middle of the month there were a scant few open on the calendar with promising possibilities awaiting.

Each organization is listed, with a link to its own website, on Petschonek’s website, confessionsofavolunteer.com. As important as the volunteering itself is to her, keeping the blog updated with her experiences and with the information needed for others to become involved is every bit as important.

Blogger Sarah Petschonek visits with a Meritan client during a home visit. Petschonek is volunteering at a different place each day in November and writing about it on her blog, Confessions of a Volunteer. 

“People are reading it but more than that, they’re doing something with it,” Petschonek said of her website, “which is absolutely amazing and even more than what I’d hoped for.”

“Most of our volunteers here are recruited by other volunteers,” said Sister Lakshmie Napagoda, executive director of DeNeuville Learning Center. “Sometimes we put a notice in church bulletins and have recruited people that way, and then they go out and recruit other volunteers.”

Day 15, the midway point, was spent with DeNeuville, a Midtown-based organization whose website explains its mission as “ … (guiding) women from all backgrounds and cultures in learning the skills needed to make positive choices for themselves and their families.”

Petschonek spent several hours working there with a citizenship class.

Volunteers for DeNeuville are “very important,” Napagoda said. “We are not a government-funded agency, most of our teachers are volunteers. If you don’t have volunteers, DeNeuville will not exist. It is critical.”

In addition to DeNeuville, Petschonek has worked with BRIDGES, Make-A-Wish, Memphis Union Mission, Sunny Meadows, St. John’s Soup Kitchen and the Overton Park Conservancy among others.

Of her work with the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association and its Meals On Wheels program, she wrote on her website, “ … I was surprised to learn that Meals on Wheels is in desperate need of people to deliver food across this city. I suppose this surprised me for several reasons: it’s a well-known program and frankly, it’s fun!”

What may come after November, Petschonek isn’t so certain, other than using the momentum she’s built up over the past month to run the St. Jude Memphis Half Marathon Saturday, Dec. 1. She would like to find work in the nonprofit sector and possibly put her business and consulting background to use in helping organizations to streamline the volunteer process, making it more accessible and more fulfilling for all involved.

Some form of volunteering is a given, though, and with this comes the added benefit of making Memphis a better place.

“You learn so much about yourself and about your city and about everybody else, you learn to care about things outside of you, and that’s just been reinforced for me through this project.”