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'There's nothing better than this': Giving back with Volunteer Odyssey

<p>Volunteer Odyssey, founded by Sarah Petschonek in 2013, is an organization dedicated to making it easier to get the Memphis community involved in service work.</p>
Volunteer Odyssey, founded by Sarah Petschonek in 2013, is an organization dedicated to making it easier to get the Memphis community involved in service work.

As clouds burst open, a heavy downpour splashed the concrete. First came flashes of lightning and then roaring thunder. Another major storm was underway, yet a little rain didn’t stop Catholic Charities’ early morning food drive. The six volunteers for the day simply moved inside to prepare a clothing closet and food pantry for the homeless.

CCWTN works in three areas: Emergency services (like food and clothing), homeless services and community support services.

“The need has just been tremendous post-pandemic,” said CCWTN Executive Director, Kelly Henderson.

Henderson said that of the nearly 40,000 people the organization served last year, about 25% were children and almost 24% were senior citizens. Through their homeless services program, CCWTN has helped create about 400 new households.

“The common thread in all three of those areas is volunteerism,” Henderson said, “We could not do what we do without the 2,000 plus people who come to serve Catholic Charities every year.” 

CCWTN is a major partner of Volunteer Odyssey, a Memphis-based organization that helps other organizations to recruit volunteers and connects volunteers with opportunities for work.  

“We really can provide an opportunity for everyone,” said Alexandra Howard, director of operations at Volunteer Odyssey. “Not everyone is going to want to stand in the sun all day directing traffic for vaccine shots. But that’s ok. Do you like cats? Do you like dogs? We can match you with Memphis Animal Services. Do you want to help people experiencing homelessness, but not directly? You can sort clothes at Catholic Charities, or pack boxes at the food bank.”

Volunteer Odyssey was founded in 2013 by Dr. Sarah Petschonek with the goal of making volunteer work more accessible and straightforward for the average person. Petschonek traveled across the country, learning how volunteer opportunities were organized in other cities, then brought that knowledge back to Memphis.

The primary goal of Volunteer Odyssey is to make volunteering easy, fun and rewarding. The organization’s team ensures that through a thorough vetting process for every non-profit they partner with.

“Once they post their first opportunity [on VO’s website], our team goes,” Howard said. “We show up and make sure there’s someone to meet us wherever they said they would, make sure the door code they gave us works, make sure the opportunity is as long as it’s posted for.”

Events are a fun way to mix up volunteer work. Whether it’s a festival or a concert, volunteer work allows people to experience new events without having to pay.

“Volunteering is like the insider hack of unlocking Memphis,” Howard said. “The real way to truly access everything is through volunteering, because not everyone has $200 to go to a gala or see someone live at the garden. But, if you volunteer, you get to do it for free. It’s such an easy and fun way to make Memphis a better place.”

Doing service in the community is also great for students. Volunteer work looks great on resumes, and helps students make connections, and network across Memphis.

“Who you know in Memphis is important,” said Volunteer Odyssey Director of Audience Engagement, Dannon Eubanks, “and that can often give you a leg up in an interview, or as a reference, or finding a mentor. When you’re looking for candidates, or when you’re applying for a position, having that on your resume is really helpful.”

Howard and Eubanks’ enthusiasm for their job is infectious. That passion comes from firsthand knowledge that their work is creating real, tangible change in people’s lives.

Eubanks recalled meeting a volunteer who once experienced homelessness, giving back to those in their time of need.

“They were so excited to be at a place in their life where they could be what they once needed,” she said. “I was able to reach out to this person… and hear about how they are using their experience to support Memphis and to support a field that they want to work in because they want to be the thing they needed growing up. It’s truly beautiful, and so inspiring.”

Howard has a similar story. She met with a volunteer who, after experiencing a major shift in their life, set a goal to complete nearly 300 hours of service in six months.

“We got to see them a few months later, and they were upbeat, they were positive, you could see that change in their personality, and they said, ‘This has just been the most fantastic and rewarding experience, being able to build Memphis,’” Howard recalled. “Just to see that glow from them was really special.”

Eubanks made clear that this kind of experience is possible for anyone.

“There is the opportunity for everybody to find what they are passionate about, or find what’s going to light them up, or find what’s going to make them feel like, yes, this is it, this is what I’ve been wanting,” she said. “That can be you committing yourself to volunteering every single week, or that can be you saying, ‘I have thirty minutes, one day a month, and I’m going to find a nonprofit that needs me.’

Jada Sessom, a nursing student at the University of Memphis, who volunteered with VO at CCWT’s food drive, echoed that sentiment.

“For me, being nursing student, to make time from two days out of the week that I’m available - anybody can do it.”

Although Volunteer Odyssey already works with over 40 volunteer groups, Eubanks explained that the number of opportunities is expanding.

“We onboarded around 15 new non-profit partners in the last year,” she said, “and those have ranged everywhere from working with food insecurities, to working with vaccine efforts, covid testing… so we’ve had really a range of types of non-profits.”

Signing up to volunteer is simple, especially for University of Memphis students.

Any student that goes to the U of M can use their UUID to sign in at and choose from a wide variety of customizable options that best suit any individual’s schedule and interests. Volunteers can search for opportunities using several filters including availability, skills they have, or events like donation drives or fundraisers, just to name a few.

Volunteer Odyssey’s site also automatically tracks what events a volunteer has done in the past, making it easy for students to see how many service hours they have done per semester.

Additionally, anyone who is unsure of their availability or where exactly they want to volunteer can simply contact Howard at

“I’ll get to know you a little better, ask about your interests, time requirements, if you have certain skills you want to use when volunteering, and spend our team’s time and resources finding unique opportunities for you,” Howard said. “We do our best to match you with something that is unique, that you’ll truly be passionate about.”

Volunteer Odyssey has become a key service in making volunteer work fun and accessible to everyone in Memphis. From gardening, to concerts, to foodbanks and animal services, there’s a chance for every Memphian to discover their passion in volunteering, regardless of availability.

“There’s no downside, you know?” Howard said. “Anyone can do this.”

Volunteer Odyssey, founded by Sarah Petschonek in 2013, is an organization dedicated to making it easier to get the Memphis community involved in service work.

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