Open hands


Nashville’s leading volunteer organization is looking to focus more on the GLBT community and build bridges between that community and other volunteer organizations.

Hands on Nashville, one of Nashville’s leading volunteer organizations, provides an easy way for would-be volunteers to find out where they are needed and what opportunities are available in their area. More than 2,000 registered members have access to a constantly updated listing of organizations, projects, and events so they can find the perfect match.

“One of the things we are best known for is that each fall we organize the city’s largest day of volunteering,” explained Jennifer Gilligan Cole, executive director.

That day is set for Sept. 17, and Cole hopes to have a record number of volunteers offering their time for this year’s Hands on Nashville Day.

For the past four years, this day has focused on fixing up metro public schools.

“We have about 65 schools that are participating this year, and we’ll do everything from reorganize the library, to paint portables, to develop educational aids, to build bulletin boards for the hallway,” She said. “And we’ll get between 1,500 and 2,000 volunteers out for that day.”

Volunteers are welcome to sign up individually, but groups of people – such as book clubs, church groups, community organizations, or groups of friends or co-workers – can sign up to volunteer as a team.

“It’s a fun day,” she explained. “You get there and there’s a leader to meet you at the school, the principal of the school tells you about the impact you’re going to have on the school, you go out and you get really dirty, and at the end of the day CMT is sponsoring our after-party, with food and drinks and prizes at the Mercy Lounge. In the past we’ve saved the schools between $75,000 and $85,000 dollars just in that one day.”

Hands on Nashville is focusing on working more with the GLBT community, both to recruit new volunteers and to offer their services to existing GLBT organizations. “Clearly, we understand that the GLBT community volunteers a lot already and we have a ton of GLBT volunteers in our existing volunteer pool,” Cole said. “So we’re trying more and more to let the GLBT community know who we are, so that we can be a resource and so that we can ask the question what do you need from us. What does HRC need, what does NAPP need – are there volunteer needs that they have that we can help with?”

Cole admits that in the past she has encountered some volunteers who were uncomfortable working with members of the GLBT community.

“My response is always, well, why? There’s talent, there’s expertise, there’s time,” she added. “That’s what the conversation should be about. We have a number of children who don’t read at their grade level, we have a disgusting teen pregnancy rate, we have an alarming high school drop out rate, and it doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is if you want to address that.”

Cole explains how volunteering more outside of the GLBT community can actually benefit the community in an important way.

“One of the key messages about the gay community is that they are a force of volunteers, and a force for good and more and more, particularly in this climate that we’re in, the GLBT community needs to be seen that way,” she said. “And not in just one type of charity work, but in a lot of ways out there with the message that, we’re here, and we’ve always been doing this work, and we’re doing it more and more.”

Gay or straight, encouraging more people to volunteer can have a huge impact on our society.

“If everybody volunteered, we would be amazed at how much less money we would have to ask for if we accomplished things with time. We would have far more innovative solutions to problems from people actually getting out there in the trenches. We would have a more educated voting block,” Cole said. “We would have people who understand issues. Poverty is a very complicated issue. Part of the way of addressing the root cause of things is about getting out there and seeing how they really work. We would have people who understand that solutions have to be more complicated because problems are more complicated.”

This year, Cole attended Nashville’s Pride celebration with her husband and her son. She sees the work she does at Hands on Nashville as a way to bring people together, to rise above the differences that separate us.

“It matters to me that my child grows up in a way that he doesn’t see those differences,” she explained. “He’s around lots of different people, and he values people for what they do and contribute, not for who they fall in love with.”

Hands on Nashville Day takes place on Sept. 17. For more information about Hands on Nashville , attend the New Members Open House on Tuesday, Aug. 16, at 5:30 p.m., or visit their website at