by | Nov 16, 2003 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Liz Kanter had an idea. This was 1989, and she was single. She had spare time. She wanted to volunteer. Do a little good. So she opened a phone book. Called a few places. Most were not set up for anything less than a large commitment, six months to a year, minimum hours per week.

“What about a one-time thing?” she wondered.

She called some friends, found a COTS shelter, and one winter Sunday, she and seven pals went down to Peterboro Street in Detroit and cooked hamburgers and french fries for the homeless.

The next month, in a near blizzard, she and some more pals did a Habitat for Humanity project. When their fingers thawed, Liz noticed something. Her friends were talking about the project at work.

“You won’t believe what we accomplished . . .” they said.

Most people don’t believe what they can accomplish. It is why we do so little for others. We are sympathetic. We write checks. But the idea of getting our hands dirty, turning thought into reality — well, most of us feel we cannot make a difference.

Liz felt that way once. Not for long.

Volunteers needed

Her monthly “drag my friends out” sessions began to attract people who didn’t even know her. She wasn’t looking to form an organization, but she realized if somebody did the paperwork, set up the sites, got the info out — and all potential volunteers had to do was “plug themselves in” — well, people would show up.

So, working first out of her house, then, later, by her office desk (she worked for her father at American Benefits Group), she founded an organization called Volunteer Impact. It was the best kind of charity: formed in the head, powered by the heart and done with the hands.

I met Liz three years later, in 1992, when she asked me to speak at Hands-On Detroit Day, which brought people together from all over the city for a day’s worth of volunteer projects. I remember using the men’s room that day and standing next to another speaker/volunteer.

“Hi, I’m Dennis Archer,” he said.

He would soon become the mayor.

Over the years, Volunteer Impact has grown from Liz’s apartment to a basement office with no windows. But VI was never about frills. It was about human power. At its peak, VI had 14,000 people on its mailing list and was running 60 volunteer events a month! People would call, say how much time they had — two hours, a day, a week — and VI would plug them into soup kitchens, tutoring at-risk kids, building houses, painting neglected schools, doing Christmas parties at shelters. The challenge was keeping up with all the volunteers.

Now Volunteer Impact has a new challenge. It’s going broke.

Donations needed

Sept. 11 had a chilling effect on groups like VI. Corporate sponsorship dried up. Two major donors reneged on promises. And suddenly, incredibly, this wonderful organization, which opens so many doors, may have to close its own.

Sorry. Can’t let it happen. I have been working with VI for five years, having formed the splinter group A Time To Help for monthly volunteer events. I see how people are affected by volunteering. It opens eyes, then opens hearts.

At its peak, Volunteer Impact’s annual budget was not even $300,000. That’s the price of one corporate party weekend. This is a bare-bones operation. It is also a feeder agency: If it goes, so does a lot of support for other charities.

I usually don’t get involved with pleas for financial help. There are just so many. But I have seen the impact firsthand, and I believe things are in your path for a reason. So: Volunteer Impact, 23077 Greenfield Road, Suite LL10, Southfield, MI 48075; 248-559-4950; It started with a notion, the best kind, the kind that says, “I am able, let me help.” Maybe, for one of our city’s best ideas, we can do the same.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or He will sign “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble in East Lansing and at 7 p.m. Friday at Chapters in Windsor’s Devonshire Mall.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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