Amish Volunteerism

One of the more remarkable interactions between Amish and civic society occurs in Lancaster County, in the form of Amish and other Plain People volunteering, at a quite high level, on local fire crews.

This article details that involvement, as well as Plain participation as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs).  These aren’t just a few token Plain people. One local fire and EMS company is described as 80% Amish and Mennonite. An official estimates up to 300 Plain firefighters plus a smaller number of EMTs.

Volunteering is attractive not only because you get to help others.  There is something exciting about riding in an ambulance or putting out fires, as one young Amishman describes in the piece.

Amish Volunteer Fire Crew
Amish fire crew caution photo by Brad Igou

Would you be surprised if I told you not all Amish feel this type of volunteering is a good thing?

An Amish informant admits some in Plain communities are “dead against” EMS participation. The article doesn’t really elaborate as to why, though I’d suppose it has to do with involvement in civic institutions.

As far as volunteering across Amish society, Donald Kraybill shared this:

Volunteers commit to causes such as blood donation, hospice, disaster relief and participation in benefit auctions for the Ronald McDonald House at Hershey and other organizations, Kraybill said in an email.

Because the local settlement is the biggest, he added, and because many church members live in rural townships, “Amish involvement in volunteer fire companies is very extensive and, I think, higher than in most settlements.”

Volunteering makes sense for many Amish, though the form it takes may vary depending on affiliation, the individual’s age and sex, and location.

Why volunteer?

Another noteworthy point from the article: the idea that volunteerism, in general, is declining.  I’m not sure about the last couple of years, but this government site shows a general decline from 2003-2010.

I also found it interesting that the five states with the highest rates of volunteerism–Utah, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota–are Midwestern, with the exception of Utah.  Is there something cultural about the Midwest that leads to more volunteering?

Some are concerned by the decline in community service.  I have heard support for making volunteering mandatory.  Something tells me that is not the right way to go about it.  “Mandatory volunteering” seems like something else entirely.

I have volunteered in the past but must admit I currently do not. I know, of course, that it is a good thing to do, but I guess I’d offer the usual excuses: not enough time, don’t know where, erratic schedule, etc.  None of them really great, or that justifiable, if I’m being honest with myself.

What about you? Do you volunteer? Why?

If the trend is accurate, why do you think fewer people are volunteering today?

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    1. Marilyn from NY

      Yes, I volunteer for Meals on Wheels, Friends of the Library, I write a monthly newsletter for the apartments I live in called Towpath Manor and I help a the nurtrition center. I started with Meals on Wheels because I was bored one winter living in an apartment alone. My Pastor suggested I volunteer some place so I chose Meals on Wheels. I got to Friends of the library because one of my former school teachers volunteered there and she asked me if I would help her out for a luncheon they were having-I’ve been there ever since. The newsletter I write I got when the previous writer went into the hospital and I was to fill in until she got out of the hospital-she passed away and I’ve been writing for it ever since. I really enjoy all my volunteer work, I think Meals on Wheels the best. I am helping others and maybe allowing them to stay home – where if they didn’t get Meals on Wheels they would be in a nursing home or hospital.

      1. Marilyn my father does Meals on Wheels. I should probably see if I could go on a run with him when I’m visiting next month.

    2. Fran Handrick

      Volunteering is down in the UK

      I heard on the radio yesterday that volunteering in the UK is down at an all-time low. There’s a very low level of participation among the under-30’s, and even the number of volunteers aged 60+ is declining.
      Our family volunteers with an organisation, Friends International and we offer to host international students from the local university. Most volunteer families ‘adopt’ one or two students and give them one or two Sunday lunches per term. We’ve gone for this in a big way, and for the last five years, we have had ‘Open house Sunday lunch’ every week with as many as 24 students coming here for Sunday lunch, usually a traditional roast and some other options. We’ve made friendships all around the world, and are ‘English Mum and Dad’ to many students. It’s great fun and very rewarding. It probably helps that cooking and catering comes easy to me, but we have a lot of fun with the students and get a lot of satisfaction from it. We don’t have volunteer Fire or Emergency services in the UK, so that’s not an option though it used to be when I was a child in the fifties and sixties.

      1. Fran sounds like a lot of fun. Maybe volunteering is down because the rewards aren’t so obvious to people. Maybe we aren’t as capable of seeing or recognizing them?

    3. Slightly-handled-Order-man

      I think people are interested more in paid work than free volunteer work.
      The apparent decline in volunteerism is sad because it is an excellent way to network, to make use of free time, and develop new skills.

      I volunteer with two groups in my community, one because its good, helpful and looks nice on my resume, the other, I’m passionate about it, and I hope to gain a paid position as a result of my years of experience volunteering there. I stated in 1998 and I will not quit, it is important to me.

      1. Shom I wonder if that interest as you describe it is a reflection of increased competitiveness in society in general.

    4. Margaret

      Yes, we volunteer when possible. Currently our community is dealing with the Waldo Canyon Fire aftermath in the Colorado Springs area, where 346 homes were destroyed when the fire broke through the firebreak and into town. There are a million things to do to help. We have helped at the local food bank, and a few other events. Because of my illness (lupus) we can’t be ‘regulars’ anywhere, but always want to help when able!

    5. Cindy Gironda

      Volunteering Down in PA Fire Service

      Pennsylvania fire service in the 1970’s had over 300,000 volunteers. Today that number is currently has a total of 2,448 fire companies/departments. This includes 2,354 all-volunteer companies, 22 career (paid) departments, and 72 “combination” paid/volunteer companies.
      You mentioned in your article about the mid-west states having high volunteer numbers. I am sure that is true by number of people. I wish PA had that due to Pennsylvania is home to aprox 12% of the nation’s 20,000 all-volunteer fire companies, which is close to being the highest of any other state. In the last 40 years we have had just over a 70% decrease in our ranks. Active firefighters are down to just around 72,000 in PA.
      Yes, I am an active volunteer. I started volunteering at age 15 (28 yrs ago) with the Red Cross. I moved from there to a local ambulance and got my EMT then my Paramedic. While there I also volunteered as a Junior Firefighter with a local Fire Department. As I moved around after High School and College I continued with local Companies and have been with my local Fire Company for 11 years. I also have a part-time job traveling across PA teaching other volunteer firefighters.
      Volunteer rates in the fire service are dwindling. Budget cuts, Federal Regulations on mandatory training. All put a strain on Departments and individual members. When I joined the fire service 26 yrs ago just to get on the trucks (after becoming active from junior), you learned from the ‘Old Joe’s’ in the department and took about 30ish hours of training from the state. Now, not only do you have multiple in house hours of training every month, but there is almost 250 hours of training. And that’s just for firefighting. That’s not even for vehicle rescue or any other of the many specialty tracks that now have hours of training and yearly updates that even the volunteers are required to take, and pay for, sometimes out of their own pocket.
      Do I love what I do. YES. Wouldn’t change a thing. Volunteering is me. By the way I don’t get enough in the fire service (where I teach, hold 2 officer positions – 1 line and 1 executive, and am active). I also volunteer as a standby with a County Animal Response Team on their Large Animal Team. Also with the Civil Air Patrol, the US Air Force Aux, that concentrates on Aerospace Education and Character Development programs with Cadets and also hands on in Search and Rescue.
      Do I think everyone should volunteer? Yes I do. You get something back in yourself when you give. I don’t think I should be mandatory. That reminds me too much of the draft.

      1. Cindy, thanks for sharing this. Why do you think there has been an increase in training hours required?

        1. Cindy Gironda

          Increase in Training for Volunteers

          Erik, As far as the increase in training hours it’s two-fold.
          On one hand it is completely necessary. I mentioned that I am an instructor, so on top of the continuing education that I need to put in to remain active in the fire service I also must continue to go to training classes to learn all the new updates out there that those in the fire service need to know. New equipment is always being developed, and there are always new challenges facing firefighters from they type of cars people drive (hybrid, electric and propane gas) to what people put in their homes (30 years ago most homes were filled, and built with wood and such, and now items are made of plastics and plastic by-products that when burned create cyanide gas.
          On the other, some of it is completely political. Some of the training that we must do is tied to money. As Aaron mentioned there is Homeland Security money out there. The thing is that some of that money has a lot of strings attached to it. Fire Departments when they apply for Grants have to provide statistics of how many of their members have what level of training. The feds use that information to determine who gets what and how much money. No, or little, of ‘their’ training equals no, or little of ‘their’ money.

          1. Thanks Cindy for the additional info here. This was interesting. Unfortunately strings attached often have pretty heavy weights tied to the other end.

    6. Alice Mary

      I used to volunteer regularly at my kids’ schools, but that was years ago. I was also “fortunate” enough to be an “at-home Mom” for about 15 years, but that was many years ago (kids are adults, I’m a grandma). I KNOW that part of the reason volunteerism is down is that most families need both parents to be wage-earners. A lot of other Moms in my neighborhood (mostly at-home) also volunteered at school or church or the library. Also, due to the economy, some folks have lost their “main” job and in order to make up for PART of their salary/benefits, they must work two (or more) part-time jobs. There just ISN’T enough time for many people.

      I used to ring bells for the Salvation Army several hours during the holiday season, for many years. But my knees got so bad (painful), I had to cut back (had one knee replaced—maybe I’ll try again this year). Much as we’d like to, some of us find we can’t volunteer as often as we once did, due to age-related “issues” (and there are many, some quite embarrassing!), or working full-time and struggling to keep up with things at home.

      I still contribute money to charities, which I guess you might call a form of “volunteerism”. (Are we—the U.S.A.—still considered the most generous people among other nations, giving $ to charitable causes?)

      Alice Mary

      1. Thanks Alice Mary, and good question on giving…I had heard that, and wasn’t sure if it was factual or something sort of true but that we rather tell ourselves in order to feel good…I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true, though.

    7. LeeAnn

      I used to volunteer in my kids schools when they were small. As with Alice Mary, my kids are grown now. I have done some volunteering in the deaf school near by.

      Now, to busy caring for my husband who had a stroke in Oct. last year. I don’t have the free time to do the volunteer work. I wish I did. I miss giving my time to the kids to help them. I really liked working with the deaf students.

      I do help some in my church giving rides and such, but that is the extent of my helping others right now.

    8. naomi

      I work/volunteer in Holmes Co. for EMS. we have pd hours during the day then for night time we do a volunteer schedule. My husband is also a volunteer emt/fireman for the local fire dept. We both love it and its so rewarding being able to help the community. At this time we have a couple amish guys on the dept. as well.

      1. I knew one Amish EMT in Holmes Co. Naomi. I’d consider him a somewhat atypical individual though based on the jobs he’d had (teacher and accountant).

    9. 2whls3spds

      I volunteer in a variety of places. I am a reserve EMT with my local VFD. Apparently as part of the Homeland Security act they were able to get money to pay for my training, I go to monthly meetings and I am on a list for call up if there is a major emergency. I am not part of the normal rotating list. However it works for me. I do volunteer through my church for a variety of outreach programs. Two of my favorite are The Nehemiah Project, which helps elderly home owners on a fixed income do maintenance and repairs on their houses. It is administered through the local Urban Ministry non-denominational. I also work with the Baptist Men’s Disaster Relief Team. Being from a construction background and having the EMT certs it is a natural for me.

      I think in some cases the volunteering is down due to all the red tape and training they require. My wife wanted to volunteer at a local school, they wanted a full background and criminal records check and you had to attend a 20 hour mandatory volunteer “orientation” course. So it didn’t happen.


      1. Volunteering red tape

        Aaron, I wouldn’t be surprised. I wonder where all that bureaucratically displaced/blocked volunteering energy ends up. Seems like it would go somewhere, perhaps to more informal means of volunteering. Or maybe people are taking up hobbies again.

    10. Dena

      Many young people today have been raised to think only of themselves which I believe has a lot to do with volunteering being down. I almost never see teens-40’s volunteer, leaving only those 50 and up to do it. When I do see teens volunteer, it is frequently because they’ve been “volun-told” to do it!

      My 4 kids and I used to do Meals for the Elderly which is 100% volunteer operated. We enjoyed it and got to know some of the people on the route fairly well! Now the kids are older and working (and we moved), we haven’t been involved so much in volunteering.

      1. Dena naturally I felt semi-guilty writing this post today, as it made me take a look at my own current (non) volunteering. I think it is one of those things that is easy to put off, like anything else that takes effort and some inconvenience. I’ll do it when (X) happens, or when I get (Y).

    11. Melissa H


      I think Dena was right to call what most teenagers do “volun-told.” Most public high schools have manditory volunteer hours as part of the graduation requirements. I’ve always volunteered in one way or another since the age of 12. Most of my volunteering was through church-related organizations/programs…after-school tutoring; summer camp cook; VBS helper/teacher/leader; etc. My volunteering these days are limited to 5 hours or so a week with my church’s childrens’ programs, since I have 4 little ones who are homeschooled.

      Once the kids are older and able to be on their own more–teenagers–I plan on volunteering more. I would like to help out at a crisis pregnancy center and a food bank. I would love it even more if my children wanted to help out too!

      1. Melissa, still volunteering while homeschooling 4 kids…wow, sounds near-heroic 🙂

    12. Patsy

      My husband and I are medical first responders and firefighters with out local volunteer fire department. We have been for many years and really enjoy it. I think a couple of things that hinder people from volunteering is time and also the money for gas. We use our own vehicles to go on a lot of calls, if nothing else going to the fire station to pick up a truck.

      1. Patsy I guess we don’t immediately think of it that way but volunteering is also a financial sacrifice, if for nothing else but the gas (not even looking at opportunity cost of not working for $ in that time). I suspect that the psychic benefits of volunteering are probably pretty strong for so many people to make the sacrifice.

    13. Naomi

      I wonder if the decline in volunteerism has to do with the economy. My husband and I have certainly felt pressed to work and work harder just to pay the bills ever since graduating from college with student loans. I’ve heard that the economic downturn has affected the midwestern states in general less than coastal regions, although I’m no expert on this. I’m sure that there are other cultural factors as well, but this is my personal experience.

    14. Matt from CT

      >I also found it interesting that the five states with the highest
      >rates of volunteerism–Utah, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, South
      >Dakota– are Midwestern, with the exception of Utah. Is there
      >something cultural about the Midwest that leads to more

      Cultural — small town, farming; relatively homogenous (compared to the rural south); willingness to fund programs in which people can volunteer.
      Demographics — for the Midwest, other then Twin Cities area, you’re probably talking communities that people stay in or leave to another state; that’s a different from places where you see a lot of disconnected moves these days; people moving from one town to another they have no connection to.
      Socio-economics — you’re talking about relatively middle class communities for the most part, again esp. compared to the rural south.
      Historic Migration — Pioneered heavily by internal migrants from New England and other northern states who brought along the Township style of organization (even if it’s weakened over the years since), and then followed up by significant Scandavian influence later. Again, forms a stronger local community then say the South with it’s emphasis on county-sized local government.

      I’m not sure if it’s a leading or trailing indicator, but you can link the decline in fraternal organizations with lessening volunteerism. Groups that crossed religious and political boundaries — Grange, Elks, Rotary, American Legion, etc. have all seen great declines in membership.

      When you’re not meeting your neighbors regularly and talking about community problems, you’re less likely to create opportunities to volunteer.

      1. Full state volunteering rankings

        Interesting points Matt. I was wondering how more urbanized areas, say CT for instance, would stack up? So I checked the full rankings here:

        Volunteering did seem lightest in the South and in states with high urban populations (last place: New York). Connecticut did pretty well, at #17.

    15. Leo

      Volunteering in the family

      I have been involved with two Volunteer fire depts. for the last 50 years. Now that I am retired my son has picked up where I left off. He is a volunteer in the town we live in and also works part time for the county EMS service on weekends (paid position). His normal job is a EMT on a medical transport company. I see the problem with getting volunteers being a number of things. Most folks are too busy with work (some have two jobs), the training needed and required by our state, and also the number of calls they respond to. I find that there are alot of alarm systems (which the old days there where none)install in homes, thus a large increase in alarm system calls. Most of these are false (Thank God)but still requires the volunteer to respond at all hours of the day and night, and a lot of folks don’t feel they have the time to respond to all these calls. All our ambulance services use to be Volunteer, but now are slowly becoming a paid position due to a lack of personel. The fire department that my Son is running with is luckly, as they still have a good volunteer base. A lot of people who move from the city still think the country FDs are paid like the city. It is ashame that people don’t realize how much tax money is saved by not having to hire full time personel with benefits. So if anyone out there has some time, drop by your local fire house and fill out an application and volunteer, you just might enjoy it and feel like you are helping your community. As you can tell, this is near and dear to my heart.

      1. Thanks Leo. It’s a great message to spread, and especially from someone who knows the situation from the inside out.

      2. Leo J. Meade

        Just a note to say even though I am retired I started running fire calls again. It seems that the day time is harder to get first responder and I felt I could help out and they were thankful for the help. Just can’t get it out of my system.

    16. Marilyn from NY

      I went to a Girls Catholic High School almost 50 years ago. Recently I contacted and went to my old Alma Mater. Anyway what surprised me is that the school requires that the students do so many hours volunteer a year. It can be helping at a nursing home, going with a group that works on retired peoples home, doing volunteer out of state like Mississippi, Louisana, some knit or crochet blankets for new born babies, etc. and more. This work is done after school, weekends or on vacations. The school keeps records on how many hours each student completes. I asked what happens if a student didn’t complete these hours. The principal told me that it has never happened. The hours have always been completed. This has been going on for many years. Many of the students keep their volunteering on after they graduate. If they go to college, many transfere or continue their volunteer work in the town their college is in. This shows that there are young volunteers as well as us older ones.

      1. Dody

        That’s what got me started at 12. I was court ordered 10 hours of community service at a nursing home for being a naughty girl. I went on to do over 80 hours before the judge saw me. I kept volunteering 4 hours every day after school for the next 4 months until we moved.

        When we moved I volunteered at a local animal shelter washing pens, walking dogs, brushing dogs, and washing dogs. (Allergic to cats) I helped hold them down for shots too.

        After we moved again I volunteered to make baby quilts and hats. I have done this off and on since, but not a lot lately.

        I tried to volunteer at an animal shelter when i was 17, they had a whole list of items that I would need to bring, 3 separate background checks that would cost 150 dollars, plus I would be expected to come when they said -not when I had time-. I was very confused since I had to finance all of it. Well they told me “I would need it for school so I should be happy to pay the fees”…I walked away. I had served my 10 hours years before, I didn’t “need” anything from them.

    17. Volunteering

      Hi Erik,
      First “Mandatory volunteering” is an oxymoron. If it is mandatory, it is not really volunteering, is it?
      I am grateful to our local volunteer fire company and help them in any way I can. Unfortunately I cannot serve as a firefighter or EMT first responder due to health and business conflicts. However, I can support their fundraising efforts and serve as volunteer web master, so I do that.
      Mary Cameron, our volunteer fire chief is amazing! She works harder without pay than many people do with pay. She puts in endless hours writing grant proposals, raising money, dealing with government requirements, training and of course, responding to medical and fire calls. All of our firefighters are doing a great job of serving the community and I am honored to be able to make my modest contribution to their mission.
      I wonder if the reason volunteer fire companies are more common in the Midwest is because rural communities are less likely to be able to support a paid fire department, so it is volunteer or go without.
      I am aware of some Amish folks who are always willing to help those in need. It is just one of the many reasons why I admire these good Amish people.

    18. Kentucky Lady 717

      I agree with whom ever said, maybe it has to do with the economy….it takes money to buy gas to go do volunteer work….and with the price of gas and seniors on fixed income, some can’t afford to do it…..and if you live in a town where you have to drive to everything, then that’s a problem…..nothing is close enough where I live to walk to, so volunteering is out of the question for me…..and before I retired, I had to work to pay my bills, and when I got home I was too tired to think about volunteering…I would have liked to, but was unable to… have all these people who sit back and get a check or checks every month and who are much younger than us seniors and you don’t see them do volunteer work….they sit back and drink their pop and beer, smoke their cigarettes and/ or watch tv and play those stupid games on their computers…..they are the ones who need to volunteer….to help pay for their checks they get every month…..I’m talking about able bodied people who are twice younger than I….they do nothing….don’t even keep their kids clean or their house clean…never cut their grass/weeds….just lazy people who wants that check/checks each month because they feel they are entitled to it…..I say get off your back side and get a job…..there is no reason to not clean your house, or keep your kids clean and keep your yard clean…..the Gov. needs to make them work and earn their money…..and volunteer and help the seniors who are unable to do things for themselves…..wake up people…….


    19. Cindy Gironda

      Newspaper Article about Amish Firefighters in Lancaster

      Thought this was a strange coincidence that this article just posted on Sunday. I thought there was a lot of good information about how some are for and some are ‘dead against’ it.

      Amish firefighters: Flashing lights may seem out of place, but service to others is key

    20. Dody

      I’m going to be honest. When I was young I volunteered a lot, mostly in nursing homes. As I got older they made it harder to volunteer. You need a background check, a physical health check, and of course and FBI check. Plus they expect you to pay for all these checks on top of driving to the place you volunteer everyday. Volunteers don’t eat air and money doesn’t grow on trees. I wanted to volunteer at an animal shelter, after looking at the 150 dollars in fees just for background checks, I shook my head and walked away. I am not going to pay someone so I can work for free for them.