The Power of Volunteerism: Bridging Divides, Bringing New Perspectives to Our Work

In 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy prescribed volunteerism as a vital avenue for strengthening social connections in response to what he called an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation,” particularly coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also in 2023, the AIR Champions for Change initiative launched, designed to recognize staff who bring our institution’s values to life through volunteering. As part of this effort, AIR donates to the eligible, mission-aligned nonprofits where our staff volunteer, deepening the impact of their efforts.

The Champions for Change initiative is part of AIR’s broader commitment to corporate social responsibility, unlocking pathways for opportunity in communities where AIR staff live and work worldwide.

In recognition of Global Volunteer Month in April, we asked AIR Champions for Change how their volunteerism experiences inform the perspectives they bring to their work. Their responses remind us how getting involved in our communities can provide important new lenses through which we view our work, our world, and our ability to make a difference. 

Learning How to Be Responsive to Community Needs

Volunteering exposes AIR staff to grassroots organizations using community-informed and responsive operational approaches, providing insights that can be applied to how they implement projects at AIR.

Femi Vance, a senior researcher, applied her experience volunteering on the board of the California School Age Consortium (CalSAC) to hiring new talent at AIR. “Our board recruitment strategy and selection really focused on ensuring that people with lived experience in out-of-school time programs would be considered for board positions,” says Vance. “I have been involved with hiring at AIR, and the experience with CalSAC made me think about ways we can be more intentional about involving people with direct experience in the systems we hope to change in our work.”

“At AIR, I focus on youth and community development,” says TA Consultant Gislene Tayasco, who volunteers with Identity, Inc., which seeks to create opportunities for Latino youth in Maryland's largest county. “Being so closely involved as a volunteer with an organization that does this well continues to inform my work. Having AIR encourage staff to volunteer in their community makes me a better colleague and employee.”

Broadening Perspectives and Building Cultural Understanding

“My volunteerism reminds me to emphasize and prioritize the voices of young people as much as we can in the work we do,” says Sushmita Subedi, a senior researcher in the education systems area. “Youth have a lot more to give to policy and decision-making in education than we give them credit and space for.” Subedi supports Samaanta Foundation, a nonprofit providing quality higher education opportunities to students from marginalized communities in Nepal. She helps the organization develop systems for measurement and evaluation, and mentors program fellows and alumni.

Tad Johnson volunteering at Charlie's Place

Tad Johnston, a senior technical assistance consultant, volunteers each Saturday at Charlie's Place in Washington, D.C., where he prepares and serves breakfast to unhoused or under-resourced neighbors in his community, and supports a team of volunteers. “Eating together and being with people of different cultures and backgrounds provides a way to bridge the gaps, even though the gaps remain,” says Johnston. “Much of my work at AIR is in high poverty schools, and my time at Charlie's Place helps me get a better sense of the challenges people face and better prepares me to recognize the dignity of each individual.”

Right: Tad Johnston cooks breakfast on Saturdays at Charlie’s Place in Washington, DC.

Finding and Sustaining Career Inspiration

For Senior Researcher Taletha Derrington, who volunteers with eco-action nonprofit Sea Hugger, volunteering has inspired her to blend her passion for sustainability with her projects at AIR. “I would like to bring an environmental aspect into more of my work at AIR,” says Derrington. “For example, I recently worked on a proposal team with an idea related to climate change as a factor in overdose mortality.”

Taletha Derrington volunteering with Sea Hugger

Taletha Derrington teaches students about the importance of caring for our planet and oceans.

As careers evolve, volunteerism can provide a touchpoint to the people and communities that sparked staffs’ research interests. “I previously taught middle grades on the west side of Chicago and I currently live there,” says Senior Researcher Jennie Jiang, a volunteer with Chicago-based BUILD, a positive youth development organization and one of AIR’s Partners for Progress. “My work at AIR often focuses on the systematic issues at a larger scale and often I am working with large datasets or trying to understand patterns across districts, schools or states. My volunteer work grounds me in the community and people.”

Volunteerism can also be an opportunity for leadership development. “Founding the Lafayette Tool Library has given me more confidence in my ability to take a big idea and make it happen,” says Allison Nederveld, awarded a Champions for Change team award for collaborating with colleague Zenobia Wingate in support of the public tool library Nederveld co-founded in Lafayette, Louisiana. “My co-founder and I have navigated systems that are new to us, stepped out of our comfort zones, and are exceeding expectations—both our own and others’.”

Allison Nederveld volunteering at the Lafayette Tool Library

Allison Nederveld (left) co-founded Lafayette Tool Library to ensure all people in her Louisiana town can access tools to make repairs and sustain their homes. Colleague Zenobia Wingate (right) supported the project launch.

Reminding Us to Have Hope

As we push for change on longstanding social challenges, progress can be slow and even slip backward. For some staff, volunteerism provides proof of positive change in one life, or one neighborhood, and helps sustain and inspire their work.

“We are as strong as we are united,” says Christine Koerner, TA consultant, education systems, who serves on the board of the Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance and supports their community programming. “There are organizations doing great things for education, and we (AIR) can connect, support, encourage, and learn from those organizations.”

“From serving as a judge at a youth science fair to providing workforce training and support for women survivors of domestic abuse, my volunteer experiences remind me to keep a positive outlook,” says Pushpa Nandibasappa, senior web development specialist. “There is always hope.”


Lisa Habersack
Senior Manager, Strategic Communications & Corporate Social Responsibility