On April 25, Hands On Birmingham will present their first annual Ignite Awards. It will be an evening designed to honor those who devote their time to helping others in the community without expectation of recognition or reward.
“These people are what we call ‘unsung volunteers,’” said Benga Harrison, executive director for Hands On Birmingham. “They’ve never asked for recognition, ever, because that’s not their spirit. Their spirit is… a call to give back. They don’t need the kudos or the recognition; they’re just passionate about it. We need to let the rest of the community know how many of these unsung volunteers there are out in the community, because there are people working, and they’re doing it on a daily basis.”
The awards will have seven nomination categories, including corporate-based, small business, nonprofit, faith-based, student, government, and the Hands On Birmingham Volunteer of the Year Award. Individuals can be nominated by members of their community who feel that individual represents the true essence of what volunteer work is.
Harrison added that the variety of nomination categories is a reflection of how diverse the volunteer community has become, with higher volunteer numbers ranking amongst millennials, families with older children, and people entering retirement.
“Our tagline in this is ‘Ignite Action and Accelerate Change.’ That’s what we want to do,” she said. “We want people to know that we are igniting action — [and] not just us. Companies are doing it, nonprofits are doing it, the government is doing it, kids in high school and colleges are doing it. They’re igniting action and bringing change,” she said.
Hands On Birmingham started in 1998 with the goal of providing volunteer opportunities to people in the community to help them create and be a part of positive social change. The organization currently works with over 150 nonprofits in the Birmingham area, various parks and recreation departments, and Birmingham City Schools. Harrison feels it is important for residents of Birmingham to know how many individuals are willing to take time out of their schedules to help others.
“If you don’t think there is anyone else out there doing the work you’re doing, and [you think] that you’re alone and by yourself, that gets daunting and it gets discouraging,” she said. “There are people doing great work who are literally on the grass roots level, and no one ever realizes that they’re doing it. It never gets discussed. For example, there are people that have been going to a particular school and have been tutoring for years and years… and no one even knows it. But what an impact! Can you imagine doing that over so many years and having such an impact on individual lives? It’s phenomenal.”
Harrison said that the importance of volunteering has even spread into the corporate world. Several local companies have begun giving their employees time off for volunteer work in the hopes that it will serve as a “team-building exercise.”
“What [the volunteers] find out is, while it’s a team-building thing for them, they’re also learning something about their community that they didn’t know before. So it’s a twofold thing. They’re doing something that benefits the company and the community as well, plus you get more advocates then who are willing to go and talk about things that are going on in the community because they have experienced it firsthand,” Harrison explained.
Harrison hopes that the Ignite Awards will help diminish any negativity associated with Birmingham. “I do believe there is a lot of positive and good going on in Birmingham and we have to get past all of the negativity, particularly now with what’s going on at the national level,” she said. “But there’s been a lot of negativity going on in the Birmingham area for a long time now. We haven’t gotten past our negative image since the Civil Rights era… But somewhere along the line we have to go, ‘Yeah, there was injustice and yes, there is still injustice and yes, it’s a problem, but let’s look at what good can happen, and let’s work together to make that positive happen.’”
Deadline for nominee submissions is March 1, but Harrison said that if need be, they will extend the date. “This is our first year, and we would really love to get more and more people involved. If we end up extending the deadline, I will definitely make an announcement,” she said.
Overall, Harrison wants Birmingham residents to understand that gender, age, background, or belief system doesn’t matter when it comes to volunteer work because in the end people are coming together to help the community, and that is what is worth recognizing.
“Our belief is if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, if we’re out there helping the community and helping the community become better…then we’re doing our job. And we don’t care where [the volunteers] are coming from,” she said. “We don’t care if they’re coming from corporate or if they come through us or not. It doesn’t matter. They’re out there helping our community, our home! This is our home, and we all have to take care of it.”
The Ignite Awards will be held at The Club on Tuesday, April 25. To nominate a volunteer, visit the Hands On Birmingham website at uwca.org/ignite/. For more information, call Hands on Birmingham headquarters at (205) 251-5131.