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Volunteer Time Off: Engineering the Future

Everyone at Cloud for Good is passionate about nonprofits. I love hearing about all the different organizations everyone is involved with – the variety allows us to see how different nonprofits work and what solutions may be best for our clients. The nonprofits range from animal shelters to food banks to cultural events…and in my case, I’m heavily involved with competitive robotics.

I’ve been involved with FIRST since I was a 16 year old high school student. As a child whose baby pictures were in front of our Commodore64, and one who had her very own Prodigy account, the idea of building robots for fun was really appealing to me! FIRST inspires youth to enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers. Even though the robot is fun, the robot is only the vehicle – the learning and hands on mentoring that accompanies it is what gets kids to learn 21st Century Skills: problem solving, communication, and creativity alongside physics, programming, and electronics.

FIRST was founded by Dean Kamen, arguably one of the best living inventors of our time. He’s most broadly known as the guy who invented the Segway, but he’s currently working on mind-controlled prosthetics with DARPA (known as the Luke Arm) and bringing clean water to millions of people. If you’re looking for something to add to your Netflix queue, Slingshot is a great story about how Coca-Cola and Kamen are solving the world’s water crisis from the ground up.

I started on a little team in 1999 and I’ve been volunteering since 2000. Originally, the Championship was held in Epcot’s parking lot and volunteers were invited by simply emailing the teams. Now, there’s multi-channel marketing efforts to find volunteers at over 120 events across the globe. Last year 200,000 volunteers in 80 countries clocked 16 million volunteer hours across FIRST‘s four programs. Students who leave the program have access to over $25 million in scholarships.

I serve as FIRST‘s Chief Volunteer Coordinator, mentoring the volunteer at each event who manages ALL the volunteers at that particular event. Convincing someone to take vacation to help kids learn about engineering is not as easy as you would think – but thankfully for me, Cloud for Good has instituted Volunteer Time Off (VTO) for all employees. This allows me to do what I love while saving some vacation days to be with my family.

My other job as Chief Volunteer Coordinator is managing all the volunteers at FIRST‘s Championship which has grown much larger than the picture of Epcot in 2002. The Championship is held at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, with 18,000 students attending and 1,400 volunteers. The sheer size of the event can be seen in this video. We start recruiting volunteers around Thanksgiving, and my team puts all volunteers through multi-level screening process before role assignment. The weekend before the event, every volunteer is placed at a location based upon his/her requests (for example, a mom who is volunteering would like to be on the field where her daughter is competing). This is a six hour process that I treat like a giant puzzle. We do this to maximize the experience that each volunteer has at the Championship. Many are spending their own money for flights and hotels. We want to ensure that volunteers enjoy their involvement in this event while donating their time.

Because I completed the program, it’s very rewarding to make the magic happen and see students experience the FIRST community for the first time. These people are a second family for me – we’ve seen each other grow up, start families, and have amazing careers. That’s not to say that my actual family doesn’t get in on the fun too – my dad serves as a judge and my brother (now a mechanical engineer) has come back to mentor the little team where we both got our start.

I don’t know if I would be the person I am today without my time spent in FIRST. It has made technology accessible and fun, and as the IoT (Internet of Things) starts to make its way into the Salesforce Platform, I am thrilled to see my two worlds mixing together. I hope one day (if you haven’t already), you can find that one program that drives you like I have – and when you do, give it your all!