Volunteer Programs and Discernment Houses

Many religious communities have established volunteer programs to enable persons to assist in their mission, including residential volunteer programs, in which volunteers live with other volunteers or with a religious community in the course of the program. Some communities establish discernment houses in which young people who are discerning their vocation in life may live for a year or two, often in the early years after college.
Both these projects have many positive aspects and provide a great service to volunteers and discerners as well as to the communities that host them and the broader community of faith. To ensure these benefits continue, a community should be aware ofthe problems and concerns that may arise. The program will be better established and operated if they can clearly define its parameters and place the project's future in the hands of prudent guides.
Residential Programs - Volunteers and Discerners may live in a common house and may share that space with members of the community. Reasonable care should be taken to ensure the necessary privacy for persons, valuables medications. If living with religious, there should be some part of the house reserved to the religious themselves including sleeping rooms and perhaps an office or common room. 
Screening Volunteers - Screening of volunteers or resident discerners will depend on the nature of the program itself. A written application, an interview, and letters of reference are the basic elements of screening, they may be supplemented with criminal checks in certain cases. Many programs require that applicants be at least 18 years of age. Generally, an application will seek out information about the person's interest in the program and may require a letter of reference from their parish or youth leader. If the volunteer will be working with children, appropriate screening should occur and most programs require a certification.
Orientation - Orientation and training can help to anticipate and resolve any potential issues before they arise. It can also help to make volunteers aware of the support that is available to them in case of concerns, emergency, safety or personal issues. 
Placement - Some programs involve more risk than others. If a volunteer will be assisting the organization's staff with light clerical work, the risk may be limited to the volunteer's access to sensitive information or to money. If a volunteer is working with children or elders, the organization should screen to ensure these vulnerable people are not at risk. Appropriate policies can also help. If the volunteers are doing heavy lifting or are working with heavy equipment, they should be assessed for their fitness for the work. Screening, management, and supervision will help ensure the integrity of the program and its service. Insurance may help to cover unforeseen risks.
Driving - When volunteers drive for your program, the organization should ensure that they have the proper license and insurance. They should also have a transportation policy that treats safety issues that may arise in the course of driving for the organization, e.g. children, accidents, personal vehicles and personal use of program vehicles. 
Injury - In many states, volunteers are not covered by Workers Compensation. Therefore it will be important to establish policies regarding safety and insurance. The program may require a waiver of liability.
Liability - A volunteer program is generally responsible for reasonable screening and supervision of its volunteers. It is helpful to have clear policies and consistent and prudent management of the program to limit risk. The Federal Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 protects volunteers who are acting in good faith within the scope of their volunteer service. Some state laws also provide protection. None of this protection extends to unlawful activity.
Discipline - As with any human endeavor, there will be people who are unable to meet program expectations. A clear policy on discipline will identify a process for communicating deficiencies, facilitating improvement, and setting guidelines for the departure of a volunteer or discerner who remains unable to make sufficient progress.

For more information on this topic, consider registering for May's webcast which will examine the important place of Volunteer Programs and Discernment houses today, and the legal issues that arise in their establishment and operation.  Register here.

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