Website bridges volunteers with one-off events, provides consistent communication and easy scheduling
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
Those who wish to donate their time can explore events and organizations online to find gigs through the Volunteer Big Sky website.
Ciara Wolfe, vice president of philanthropy with the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, provides big-picture oversight of Volunteer Big Sky. She also serves on the Big Sky Resort Area District board, where she recently helped allocate grants and funding to local nonprofits and organizations. Wearing those two hats, Wolfe sees that resort tax funding creates just one mechanism of support for many organizations.
“It’s not just about money, but it’s about engagement as a community,” she told EBS, on the importance of volunteerism.
About a year and a half ago, the YCCF created Volunteer Big Sky to provide an easy way for locals—including part-time residents—to sign up and volunteer. The website lists opportunities and events needing volunteers and serves as a portal for sign-ups. The idea was rooted in a growing opportunity: members of the Yellowstone Club wanted to support the Big Sky community by giving not only their money, but their time.
“It’s really meaningful for them to be out in the community… being able to build those bridges,” Wolfe explained. She added that Big Sky is a second-home community beyond the YC, and that VBS creates a place where part-time residents can sign up for one-off events, or schedule volunteer hours around their time in Big Sky.
The portal does not lock volunteers into commitments for any extended period of time.
Wolfe has received one main piece of feedback from organizations that list their volunteer opportunities: the website is great, but more volunteers are needed.
For example, the volunteer-based Big Sky Thrift store operated through the winter with plenty of volunteers—in all, 58 people have logged at least one shift, about half being Yellowstone Club members. But when spring offseason came, many helping hands left town and the thrift store closed for a few weeks. The shop returned with a limited schedule.
“We’re still so busy,” said Emily Burke, YCCF associate director of programs who runs Big Sky Thrift. “We have more donations than any other time of the year because it’s spring cleanout. But we have to limit our hours because we’re low on volunteers.”
Burke said she plans on giving volunteers a two-week break each May, but she’s not satisfied with the current three-day, 18-hour-per-week schedule. The shop has a sign posted on the door to attract volunteers, and Burke plans to add another 6-hour day starting July 1. That’s still only Wednesday through Saturday, but Burke noted this is typical for a ski town thrift store.
“We’re hoping to tap into high school kids and anyone else who needs volunteer hours or a resume builder,” Burke said. “I’m happy to sign off on required volunteer hours.”
In her YCCF role, Burke also oversees the Volunteer Big Sky website. She said it’s “getting a face lift” in terms of graphic design, but it’s generally set up for organizations to manage their own page.
“It’s a one-stop shop for all the entities in town,” Burke said. Some of her thrift shop volunteers have discovered other opportunities while signing up for thrift shifts.
Another organization which depends on volunteers is the Gallatin River Task Force.
As the Gallatin River’s impairment designation requires increased water quality monitoring, the task force will continue to water quality testing they’ve been conducting for nearly two decades. Montana Department of Environmental Quality will send staff members to conduct testing as well.
“It’s a great opportunity for people to get on the river and learn about the impairment designation,” said GRTF Conservation Manager Jess Olson. She added that ecological restoration site maintenance is another great volunteer opportunity, and even more flexible.
Locals can pull weeds and help build structures for an hour, which is ideal for those juggling work, family and other hobbies, Olson explained.
“We love our volunteers,” Olson said. “We couldn’t do our work without them. We’re a pretty small staff.”
The task force now lists all their volunteer opportunities on VBS. While the website hasn’t necessarily brought more volunteers, Olson said VBS has improved coordination and communication. She still sees volunteers finding opportunities through traditional postings and established channels, but VBS is a new resource that serves as a bridge for more efficient scheduling and contact.
“There’s a ton of opportunity to get people using [VBS] more,” she said. “But it’s a niche that hasn’t been fully figured out yet.”
And the Big Sky Community Food Bank tends to face increased demand in the offseason, as seasonal workers don’t have full paychecks. Sarah Gaither, operations manager for the food bank, relies on VBS for weekly volunteer opportunities, special events and food drives. The organization banks more than 500 volunteer hours per year.
“It’s great because we get a wide variety of people into the food bank who normally wouldn’t be involved in our services,” Gaither wrote to EBS. “We have a GREAT volunteer base who are committed to helping out each and every week, others drop in as their schedules allow. We need all of the above to make our programs work. Volunteer Big Sky has made a huge difference in easily scheduling people to help.”
The case for full-time workers
Wolfe worries that in a small town brimming with so many organizations, many locals think volunteering means serving on a board. But intermittent opportunities can make just as big of a difference, she said, with a much smaller time commitment.
“Volunteering is giving your time, and time is money,” Wolfe added. “A lot of people are not able to give philanthropically. But that time they’re giving is a value add just as much as dollars to these organizations.”
In 2022, volunteers in Montana were estimated to donate $27.87 per hour in unpaid value, according to a report from Independent Sector.
However, in Big Sky, a clear barrier to volunteerism is the fact that many locals work more than 40 hours per week, often holding multiple jobs. Between Big Sky’s high costs of housing, health and wellness, groceries, and other factors of living, some of the local workforce may not feel able to spend time working for free.
Wolfe understands that reality. She counters that while volunteering doesn’t pay wages, it still pays.
“Volunteerism has been found to be one of the strongest indicators of preventing depression,” she said. It’s one of the main factors that create a feeling of connection with one’s community, she added.
Shannon Steele, who heads YCCF’s behavioral health program, provided some evidence to back Wolfe’s mental health argument.
In an email to EBS, Steele cited Victoria, Australia, where 20% of the community volunteers annually, generating $16.4 billion. An associated study showed that volunteers are 42% more likely to rate their overall mood as “very happy.”
Steele also pointed to a longitudinal study of 70,000 people, in which participants answered questions every two years between 1996 and 2014.
“The study found that people who volunteered in the past year: were more satisfied with their lives; rated their overall health as better; and those who volunteered more frequently, experienced greater benefits,” Steele summarized. This was covered by the Washington Post in 2020.
Plus, volunteering is a comfortable and fun way to meet people, especially in a transient community like Big Sky, Wolfe said.
“Volunteering improves access to social and psychological resources through social interactions and a sense of purpose,” Steele added, citing a study by Social Science & Medicine. “As a result, volunteers experience the following mental health benefits: Counters negative moods and feelings of depression and anxiety; Lowers depression levels for those over 65; And prolonged exposure to volunteering benefits all age groups.”
For example, Burke said she’s seen older, non-working adults create strong bonds while volunteering at Big Sky Thrift, and it’s “immensely important” to them.
A remedy for growing pains
Melissa McKeithen has been a Yellowstone Club member and part-time Big Sky resident for more than twenty years. Two years ago, she moved to Big Sky and lives full-time in the meadow. She’s board president of the Arts Council of Big Sky, and as Big Sky Thrift prepared to open, she worked to get the store up and running.
“I just freakin’ love working at the thrift. It’s just the most fun thing,” McKeithen told EBS, adding that some days she just shows up without even signing up on Volunteer Big Sky.
She has been encouraging her fellow Yellowstone Club members to check out VBS.
“I think when you get involved in the community, it’s good for everyone, right?” McKeithen said. “Because it helps disabuse people, sometimes, of some ideas they have about YC members. And it helps YC members understand the community a little better.”
She said there are a lot of tensions in the community, through recent growth and growing pains, and preconceptions people have about each other.
She believes volunteering is a great way to connect diverse groups of people and build more connections, and that volunteerism will increase as more people become aware of the need for volunteers, and the fact that many opportunities don’t require regular commitment.
Burke praised McKeithen and said she’s a great example of someone building the Big Sky community between her various involvements.
McKeithen is enthusiastic about the growth of VBS and has ideas. She suggested a weekly email to its user base, listing events that week that need support.
“Anything that gets you to something that you might not otherwise go to… I think it’s super important as Big Sky grows and changes to give people that access,” McKeithen said.
Olson agreed that volunteering encourages personal relationships.
“You see [volunteers] around Big Sky or Bozeman, and you know them because you met them on the river,” she said, her mind on GRTF volunteers.
“At least for me, it makes me feel more engaged in the Big Sky community,” Olson added. “It’s really inspiring, not to be cheesy about it.”
Burke said that if anyone is having a bad day, she recommends they work the cash register at Big Sky Thrift. There, they’ll be showered with “thank you” from shoppers, and it can turn anyone’s day around.
“I think it’s about helping people, and working together,” Burke said.