Goodwill of volunteers adds up

Volunteering is just too good to keep to one's self. That's why this week, on her second trip to help hurricane Katrina survivors, Sally Gray took along her son. At spring break, she'll bring more family. Now her hairdresser's fired up about helping.

A year of global natural disasters is also proving to be a year of natural goodness. The full spirit of Christmas giving has been practiced every single day, and it's spreading.

Beginning with 9/11, tragedies such as the Asian tsunami and Gulf hurricanes have spurred a welcome growth in volunteering, practiced by 29 percent of Americans, or 65 million people. Also encouraging: Anticipated "donor fatigue" in charitable giving doesn't look as if it will materialize, and this year may be a record one for contributions to many nonprofits (thanks in part to a new tax law).

These are signs that people are discovering the joy and rewards of community service and want to make it a regular part of their lives.

That's what happened to Ms. Gray, a mother and teacher's assistant in Tupelo, Miss. She's one of a vast number of volunteers helping hurricane survivors in the Gulf Coast (and those dispersed around the country). Thousands of people have been organized by the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, churches, synagogues, and other groups to serve hot meals and rebuild homes and lives.

Highlighting just one individual's goodwill, like Gray's, gives insight into just how much America owes its army of good-works enlistees.

It was November when she first went to Camp Coast Care, a sizable volunteer center in Long Beach, Miss., run by the Lutheran Episcopal Disaster Response. Taking vacation days, she worked in the camp's food and household tents. Now, using Christmas time off, she's a muckraker - clearing out wrecked homes.

In Camp Coast's radius, more than 4,000 volunteers (many of them retirees and college kids) have helped supply goods to over 100,000 survivors, provide medical treatment to more than 13,000 people, and clean out about 600 homes. These tangible results, and the community she's helping build, mean a lot to Gray. "More moving than seeing the devastation and sadness is to see people from all over the country pitching in," she says via cellphone.

It's no holiday unloading cans of beans, sleeping on cots in a gym with snorers, braving driving rains and cold, and helping people who horde right along with those who say sweetly, "no baby, I have a toothbrush, I don't need another."

But the hardship isn't what lasts. Volunteers talk about the great need the survivors have for love, and how fulfilling it is to provide it. Like Jesus, "we're washing each other's feet. It seems like the lowest, but it's really one of the highest acts of all," says Debra Jones, who recently drove 10 hours from North Carolina with her dog Miss Pickles to pitch her tent and work in the Camp Coast "store." Like Gray, Ms. Jones's enthusiasm has spread, and now her dad's thinking of going down to help out.

Such is the multiplying effect of heartfelt charity - the healing love that can't be contained, and won't tire. That's fortunate, because Camp Coast is in this for five to seven years. Plenty of opportunity for more people to discover how wonderful giving is.

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