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VOL. 128 | NO. 240 | Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Volunteer Odyssey Expands Program for Employers

By Andy Meek

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For Sarah Petschonek, what started as a childhood interest in volunteerism has evolved from a habit to an inventive blogging project to what today is her social entrepreneurship venture dedicated to promoting volunteer activities around the city.

The Memphis Cook Convention Center brought 35 employees to the Mid-South Food Bank warehouse as part of the convention center’s participation in Volunteer Odyssey.

(Sarah Petschonek)

Volunteer Odyssey is the weeklong volunteer and blogging tour of the local nonprofit scene she launched in March, a program that helps job-seeking participants develop marketable skills while giving back in the process. Now, Petschonek is expanding that program by adding a component for employers and corporate teams.

Citing research from organizations like Harvard Business Review that suggests employers are increasingly turning to meaningful volunteer opportunities as a way to attract and keep top talent, Petschonek’s Volunteer Odyssey has added customized corporate packages to its mix of services.

It’s a new chapter for a venture that already has seen 20 job seekers donate more than 1,000 hours of volunteer time to local nonprofits, and the group already has begun lining up corporate clients.

The first such client is the Memphis Cook Convention Center, which brought 35 employees earlier this month to the Mid-South Food Bank warehouse to volunteer for a day.

Convention center general manager Pierre Landaiche said his organization wanted to participate because it’s keen on making as big a splash in the community as it can with the resources available to it, “and Volunteer Odyssey is making that possible.”

“We know from recent research that employees say it’s important their organizations are involved in the community, and we’re trying to help them accomplish that,” Petschonek said. “Our focus right now is building out this new corporate program and creating small group experiences for employees. The goal is to find a great place for them to volunteer.”

Sarah Beth Jarnagin is an example of the job seekers who’ve been a part of Volunteer Odyssey thus far. She’s looking for a job in public relations with a faith-based nonprofit group or a Christian organization where she can use her strengths in social media, writing and relationship development.

Recently, as part of Volunteer Odyssey, she volunteered her time to help the Overton Park Conservancy.

“Today, I planted daffodils at Overton Square Park,” Jarnagin wrote as part of the requisite blogging that Volunteer Odyssey entails. “While it was a little cold and windy, the park will be filled with colorful flowers by spring. Volunteers and employees at the Overton Park Conservancy sacrificed a warm Saturday morning by the fire to dig through the mud and plant some seeds.

“Aside from attending a concert at The Levitt Shell, I had not previously visited Overton Park. After a couple of hours at the park, my eyes were opened to its many great benefits, walking trails, playgrounds and bike trails.”

The goal of Petschonek’s venture adding the corporate element is to promote employee engagement and team building through similar service experiences. The experiences can be customized for individuals, small teams and groups, and each experience culminates with a video of the event.

To say Petschonek is passionate about volunteering is an understatement. After turning 30 and leaving Nashville to move back to Memphis, she spent an entire month on a personal project she called “Mission Memphis: 30 Days of Volunteering.” For an entire month, she volunteered with a different organization each day.

Volunteer Odyssey continues that passion.

“The bottom line is we’re always trying to find a way to get people more involved in volunteering and removing barriers to doing that,” Petschonek said. “We’ll continue to add programs to reach out to different groups. Because no matter what you love to do, there’s somebody out there who wants you to come do that for them.”

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