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Volunteers with the Maryland Food Bank help set up a food drop at Matthew Henson Elementary School in Baltimore on April 30. (Photo courtesy of Maryland Food Bank)

Unrest in city prompts surge in volunteer interest

After last week’s riots and fires in Baltimore, an overwhelming number of people have reached out to local nonprofits saying they want to help.

At Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Chesapeake, that’s meant a 3,000 percent increase in volunteer inquiries, said Terry Hickey, the organization’s president and CEO.

“We usually get about four inquiries a day. In the past two days, we’ve had about 300,” Hickey told The Daily Record.

The organization serves about 1,000 children in the Baltimore area and has a waiting list of about 600 children in the city, Hickey said. “Our biggest challenge has been finding people, particularly men, to step up and volunteer because it seems like such a big-time commitment,” he said.

But the past week has been different. A larger-than-usual portion of the inquiries come from men, and those interested in mentoring have included first responders and prosecutors.

“What’s amazing about this is that we’re not generally an emergency-response reflex,” Hickey said, explaining that news stories don’t usually prompt people to commit to being a Big Brother. “People are coming to us saying that something resonated with them when they saw young people on the street.”

While finding mentors for older children is often challenging, more people are now saying they want to work with teens, Hickey said.

Some of those who have called have specifically said they want to be mentors to the Baltimore City youth they saw on TV during the conflict last week, he said. Usually, it’s more common for volunteers to ask to mentor children in the suburbs, where they live, Hickey said.

And Big Brothers Big Sisters isn’t the only group seeing a surge in interest.

Inquiries, donations and offers to help have also soared at the Y of Central Maryland, said Sarah Milstein, the organization’s chief marketing and development officer. “There’s an outpouring of interest in trying to be a part of the solution,” she said.

In the days following the riot, the Y saw an increase in donations to its 2015 Send a Kid to Camp campaign, which raises money to send impoverished children to summer camps, Milstein said.

The Y serves more than 20,000 people in the city.

The Maryland Food  Bank is also reporting a boost in online, monetary donations to its Baltimore office, thanks largely to an unexpected social media post.

“[It was] generated by someone sending out a Tweet,” said Deborah Flateman, the food bank’s president and CEO. “I don’t think that’s ever happened to us.”

When schools were closed Tuesday, a Twitter user who was concerned that some students might not have enough food at their homes asked followers to support the food bank. The donations followed, Flateman said.

Over the course of the week, the food bank has made what it calls “emergency food drops” at several locations, such as churches and schools, across the city, Flateman said.

From Wednesday to Friday, the food bank distributed an estimated 75,000 pounds of food to about 17,000 families in the city — which equates to about 62,500 individual meals, Flateman said.

Many corner grocery stores were damaged or closed after the destruction Monday, making food harder to find for some residents.

The food drops, which allowed residents to fill grocery bags with a variety of food items, have been “a moving experience in the midst of all the sadness and chaos,” offering a feeling of hope and cooperation, Flateman said. “I’m grateful we’ve been able to help in this way.”

The Living Classrooms Foundation, which operates two public schools in Baltimore City as well as numerous other educational and job-training programs, has also been inundated with inquiries from people looking for a way to help, said Rebekah Meyer, the foundation’s director of community outreach and volunteerism.

But many of those offers have come from people looking to help with the immediate cleanup efforts in the city, and Meyer said the organization has been encouraging them to make a longer-term commitment to get involved with the community and stay involved.

“We need people tutoring and mentoring with students,” Meyer said.

Once the cleanup is finished, new volunteers may feel like they can move on. “We hope that doesn’t happen,” she said.