By Dan A. Brown
Steffen Strayer is as helpful as he is humble. His combination of willingness to be of service and ability to guide and encourage others makes him a much-loved asset as a United Way of Northeast Florida volunteer.
A second generation Jacksonville native, Steffen spent years in the corporate world. But after career burnout, he decided to become an at-home parent. It was a decision that helped him realize he had to do something he believed in.
Since September 2018, Steffen has become a familiar and welcome face in the United Way offices and has remained a virtual volunteer for the organization throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. He currently helps the volunteer and community engagement with their continual projects and events — and has outstandingly served nearly 1,000 hours in this role. Steffen estimates he spends nine-to-12 hours a week volunteering, which ranges from on-site duties at various United Way events, at his desk in the United Way office or at home helping virtually.
“I try to help to engage with the volunteers immediately after their experience to make certain that they have that touchpoint right after their event or project,” he said, “so that they feel the value is there for their work. And I take that very close to heart; because as a volunteer myself, I always like to know that what I’ve done and what I’m doing is valued and a necessary part.”
People decide to volunteer for many different reasons, Steffen said. His own motivations are succinct and direct.
“This is where I think people would say they had some kind of calling to volunteer, but my story is probably not that,” Steffen said. “Why did I start volunteering? It’s the right thing to do.”
He acknowledges that spending the past 17 years as a stay-at-home parent influenced his decision to contribute back into society in some form.
He’d previously volunteered for organizations like the Humane Society and American Red Cross. While volunteering at his daughter’s school, he was the first-ever male to win the award for “Outstanding Volunteer Service” by the Parent-Teacher Association, along with serving in the classroom and helping with school safety patrol.
“I’ve always felt the need to have something to do,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, his 17-year-old daughter Fiona is now a committed volunteer in her own right. “She gets upset with me when I don’t bring opportunities to her attention so she can have something to do.”
As a United Way volunteer, Steffen really enjoys working with companies on projects and events that involve assembling things like snack packs and peace bracelets. In his experience, a corporate idea like team-building is completely transformed from a formal gathering into a day of eventual camaraderie and goodwill.
“I enjoy that because I get to see the organization doing something together, and the stories and jokes they tell one another during that time,” he said.
For some, the prospect of volunteering for the first time can be as nerve-wracking as the first day of a new job. Steffen is a wellspring of experience, generous with suggestions for prospective volunteers.
“The first thing is to find something that is not only comfortable for you to do, but is something that you feel will make a difference in the lives of people whom you care about,” Steffen said. “Find something that has touched your life in some way, that gives you that sense of direction and moving society in the direction that you want it to be. Find out how much time you can give. Give as much as you can, but don’t give more than you have. Otherwise, you will burn yourself out, and it does neither the organization or yourself any good.”
In 2019, Steffen was nominated for a week-long “Community Celebrity Cruise” prize for outstanding volunteers provided by United Way partners, Points of Light and Cabot Creamery Cooperative. He won the national prize. “Being nominated and recognized for that award was humbling, and it also gave me a sense of that ‘impostor syndrome,'” he said. “How could I possibly be good enough to get this award? I don’t realize the impact that I have. So it’s pretty incredible.”
Steffen believes that volunteerism has changed him in unexpected ways.
“It has changed my definition of success,” he said. “Success is no longer measured with a paycheck and that sense of acquiring the material accoutrement of life. Volunteering and working with any nonprofit can give you that sense that success comes from the amount of impact you have with the community and the people around you.”
United Way impacts our community in many positive ways. But we can’t do it alone. Volunteers like Steffen — and you — can help make our efforts at improving Northeast Florida that much more a reality.
“One of the things I’d like to stress is that I am one of the very few people who has the honor to work with some of the most passionate, dedicated and capable people in the world,” Steffen said. “And that makes me want to be here. Because these are the people that I learn from and absolutely enjoy being around. When I say that it’s a responsibility to be here at the United Way office, I’m getting a lot more out of it than just sitting at a computer.”
Steffen, the feeling is mutual.