Community Spotlight

Inspired and Dedicated Volunteers

Matthew Nielsen and James Semler-Nielsen have been enthusiastic volunteers with Volunteering For Oakland’s Oakland Unified School District/Students/Youth Volunteer Fair since its inception in 2009.  Matt joined the many volunteers that worked to help elect President Obama in the 2008 election.  After the historic election, a group was formed (that became Volunteering For Oakland) and also a Local Schools Action Group subcommittee was formed.  The intent of this subcommittee was to hold an annual volunteer fair, connecting Oakland residents with local non-profits that offer tutoring and mentoring of youth and students in Oakland.

I interviewed Matt and his husband James to see why they became volunteers for VFO’s Volunteer Fair and why they are still involved.

VFO:  Why did you get involved with the Local School Action Group and the Volunteer Fair?

Matt:  One of the priorities of Volunteering For Oakland was schools and education.  This group was formed in late 2008/early 2009 when the economy was crashing and funding for education was disappearing.  It is hard to remember how desperate those times were.  VFO saw the Volunteer Fair as a way to help fill in the gaps.  We also provided volunteer staff at school libraries when funding for those positions was cut.  My husband James became involved at that time.

VFO:  What is the most interesting and/or rewarding part of your volunteer work?

James:  The people and the sense of community.  When we are at the fair we meet the non-profit staff and various volunteers, people with their hearts in the right place wanting to help their community.  And there are so many groups doing so many great things!  The goals and the roles of the founders of the various groups are so selfless.  Everyone wants Oakland to reach its full potential.  Education is the great equalizer.  Helping kids with reading and with homework is so important.  These kids are the future face of Oakland representatives; Oakland’s future entrepreneurs and civic leaders.  And VFO and these organizations want to do all they can to make the aspirations of these young people come true.

VFO:  You both moved to Sacramento in 2012, yet one or both of you have been at every fair since the first one in 2009.  Why do you still come?

Matt:  We love to talk to the vendors and experience their enthusiasm, passion and commitment.  They are thrilled to get volunteers to help them with their mission.  Also, we see the energy of the volunteers and see all the things they want to do and the organizations they can join.  Their energy is so great!! We see the connection between the families and the tools these programs provide for them.  Some parents don’t have the skills or education to help their kids.  These organizations help the community as a whole prepare future generations.

VFO:  Any other observations?

James:  The staff of the non-profits really care.  It is great to see so many people eager to facilitate change.  And to meet volunteers with the expertise, time and passion to facilitate that process.