BEMIDJI -- Having a reliable, consistent crew of volunteers is becoming more of a challenge for the Bemidji Community Food Shelf.

The pantry, located in Bemidji's Industrial Park area, is heavily dependent on volunteers, and there are several dedicated individuals committed to the cause. However, the volunteer team is getting older.

"They're aging, so they're less able to volunteer," food shelf Executive Director Mary Mitchell said. "We're also finding younger people and the newly retired aren't stepping up as much to volunteer. We're very concerned, as if it's a looming crisis both here and nationwide."

Across the country, fewer people have been volunteering the past few years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percent of the United States population who volunteer went from 26.8 percent in 2011, to 25.4 percent in 2013 and then to 24.9 percent in 2015.

In a 2018 report by the University of Maryland, researchers found "that while nonprofits have benefited from record highs in volunteer hours and fundraising, fewer people are doing more." Additionally, researchers found 31 states experiencing volunteer declines between 2004 and 2015.

By age, those 33 to 44 years old and 45 to 54 years old are most likely to volunteer, according to a 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. The rates were lowest among those age 20 to 24.

"What we're finding is younger people are more likely to volunteer in a more spur-of-the-moment way, and less on a regular schedule," Mitchell said.

The shelf isn't without its dedicated people, though, as there are several individuals trying to make a difference. Terry Bradley, for example, has been helping at the food shelf since retiring two years ago.

"I like being at a place that takes a team effort, and I found that here," Bradley said. "It's very rewarding work. I'd encourage anybody who has free time to consider doing this."

Denae Alamano, United Way of Bemidji Area's executive director, said the effort to encourage and engage the next generation has been a topic throughout the organization.

"Something we're hearing is the next generation wants to know what the outcomes will be," Alamano said. "We're learning millennials aren't engaging unless they understand what the impact will be first."

To contend with that, the United Way has created the "Lead, Impact, Network and Change," or "LINC" program.

"It's a training program for young professionals who're able to go through a six-month course to learn about working in the community and getting involved through volunteer efforts," Alamano said. "It's part of the change we want to make happen."

The United Way also operates the Volunteer Bemidji website. Originally operated by Community Resource Connections, Volunteer Bemidji is a platform where both nonprofits and volunteers are able to register and connect for profits.

Mitchell said the food shelf, which can have up to 120 families walk through the doors on a weekday, will also have to consider alternating its strategy.

"We as an organization have to rethink how we operate," Mitchell said. "As things change, we're going to have to change, too. We have to find ways to adapt to these new ways of volunteering."

The Beaver boost

One bright spot for the community is the quantity of student volunteers in its backyard, thanks to BSU and Northwest Technical College. In a 2018 economic impact study by Minnesota State, the combined volunteer force of BSU and NTC's faculty, staff and students generates $2.5 million worth of charitable donations and volunteer activities annually.

The report estimated the volunteer time as worth $1.9 million and found financial donations to be worth $610,000. When it comes to specifically student athletes, the number of volunteer hours for 2018-2019 was 659.

Chelsea DeVille, BSU head women's basketball coach and Student Athletic Advisory Committee liaison, said in many instances, student athletes are volunteering with the youth.

"Those are our biggest fans, and it's great for kids to see our student athletes as role models," DeVille said. "It shows how big the hearts of our athletes are. They understand being a Division II student athlete is a privilege and we need to give back. We want to make sure we're a positive influence on the community."

Outside of student athlete efforts, many BSU volunteers find out where to help via Josey Fog, associate director of Hobson Memorial Union.

"We connect with and talk to the clubs at the beginning of the year and show them some of the volunteering opportunities," Fog said. "I've been here for two years and volunteerism has been growing for us, but it's also been an effort on our part to ask more students to volunteer."

Some of BSU's students already have joined the volunteer community this fall semester. During Thursday's Bemidji Community Table, which offers free meals on selected weeknights, BSU seniors Greta Schierman and Nicole Schaefer were on hand to help out.

"We learned about it through Volunteer Bemidji," Schierman said. "We've been here three days and we plan to keep volunteering here for the next few weeks. I love it, it's been good to get out in the community."

According to data from the United Way, the Volunteer Bemidji site has 642 active users and 112 are BSU students.

"It's been really eye-opening to see how many people are in need of free meals," Schaefer said. "We get a lot of regular guests who visit us every day. It's been a good learning experience."

Turning a corner

On the national level, while Bureau of Labor statistics show down years for volunteering in the past decade, 2017 saw a rebound, according to nationwide volunteer organization. Statistics from Volunteering in America showed 30.3 percent of adults gave their time and effort.

At a more local level, 2017 was also a good year for volunteering in Minnesota. According to Minnesota Compass, the state was second behind Utah in volunteering at 47.4 percent of the population.

George Stowe, a Community Table Board member, said the number of volunteers has gone up for the program in the past few weeks, in part because of the students offering their help.

"We've certainly had more people helping," Stowe said. "Our biggest needs for volunteers moving forward will be around Christmas and again next summer."

For Stowe, the reason to volunteer and keep volunteering is because it's a "labor of love."

"I do this because I get more out of it than I give," Stowe said.