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A Nonprofit Grows Up

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Marissa Vogel, founder of Generation Serve, discusses the importance of emphasizing community service and impact from a young age. 

By Mikaila Rushing, Photos courtesy of Generation Serve

Marissa Vogel stands cooking in the Ronald McDonald House kitchen, surrounded by children and their families. She enjoys the cacophony of the kitchen, but to her, the best part is watching as the children serve the meals they worked so hard to prepare to the house’s occupants.

This is one of Vogel’s favorite volunteer activities to lead.

Vogel, 48, is the executive director of Generation Serve, formally known as Little Helping Hands. She graduated with a master’s degree in business from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and, for more than a decade, worked in the for-profit industry with several Fortune 500 companies.

After Vogel moved from San Antonio to Austin in 2007, she found herself unsatisfied with the volunteer opportunities available to her and her family. Vogel’s daughters, ages 4 and 6 at the time, were considered too young by many organizations to contribute volunteer work, but Vogel wasn’t satisfied with using that as an excuse. She felt teaching children to be community-minded and compassionate individuals was best done at a young age. She believed it was never too early to start giving back to one’s community.

“I’d been in Austin for a few years already and I felt like, ‘Wow, I love this community. I want this community to be my home,’ ” Vogel says, reflecting. “[I thought,] ‘How can I give back to this community?’ ”

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, so, in 2009, Vogel decided to start her own family-based volunteer organization, Little Helping Hands. In September, the organization changed its name to Generation Serve.

As a nonprofit, Generation Serve partners with approximately 90 nonprofits throughout the city to provide volunteer opportunities to families with children, allowing kids as young as 3 years old to begin volunteer work. Before overseeing volunteer activities onsite, leaders at Generation Serve make sure to educate children and their families about the causes they will serve, including nonprofits like Austin Pets Alive!, the Central Texas Food Bank, Coats for Kids and many more.

Although the emphasis of Vogel’s nonprofit is to get kids volunteering at a younger age while also allowing families to come together in giving back to the community, Generation Serve also caters to older children. Recently, the organization began offering its youth leadership program, which delegates leadership roles to middle-school and high-school students, and service-learning courses that allow third through fifth graders the opportunity to learn more about their community and service.

“It’s really about creating generations of community-minded leaders and citizens,” Vogel says of her mission, “because everything that we’re doing here on a day-to-day basis is to prepare kids to be leaders in their community.”

Originally, the organization focused more on early childhood volunteerism, but as the children of the program began to grow up, so did the organization. Eventually, the goal shifted from simply getting kids involved in their communities to cultivating generations of community-minded leaders, all with a passion for volunteer work. This was the primary reason Little Helping Hands was renamed Generation Serve.

“We realized that this is a whole generation we’re affecting…and our name, it just really doesn’t suit us anymore,” Vogel says. “We’ve evolved as an organization. … That’s how I see it: Little Helping Hands has grown up.”

It the eight years since its inception, Generation Serve has grown to have more than 5,000 volunteers contributing more than 12,000 hours of volunteer service a year to the Austin community. The nonprofit’s monthly volunteer calendar typically has more than 70 volunteer events listed, and those events often fill to capacity within 48 hours.

The organization’s success drew the attention of Texas first lady Cecilia Abbott, who paid a special visit to Generation Serve this summer.

Even with this success, Vogel says she is still looking forward to the future, and has set a goal that Generation Serve be able to expand beyond Austin’s borders some day.

“It’s great to have [the program]here in Central Texas, and it’s great for Austin kids, but to me, you know, you don’t realize the true vision unless you can get it out into other communities,” Vogel says.

While excited about the prospects of moving forward, Vogel says, in the end, she has to give much of the credit for how well the nonprofit is doing to the community that makes it possible.

“It’s really a reflection of the community,” Vogel says. “I don’t know if I could have started this in any other market and been as successful outside of Austin.”

Mark your calendar: Generation Serve will host a volunteer fair, Family Volunteer Day: Austin Families Give Back, Nov. 18. For more details, visit generationserve.org/familyvolunteerday.

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