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Volunteers sustain crime prevention nonprofit during a complicated year | Volunteer Texas Service Spotlight

Crime Stoppers of Houston was a recipient of a 2020 Governor’s Volunteer Award. If you know an individual or organization making a significant impact in Texas communities through service and volunteering, you can nominate them for the 2021 Governor’s Volunteer Award here.

The past year has been a challenging one for Crime Stoppers of Houston, which is leading Texas and the U.S. with innovative crime prevention programming to keep our communities safe. Established in the early 1980s as a Tip Line Program, Crime Stoppers is committed to solving and preventing crimes and now offers robust public safety and victim advocacy programs. Each year, the nonprofit reaches more than 5 million community members, educates over a million students, and provides crisis services and support to hundreds of victims and survivors. Through the power of volunteers, they also advocate for enhanced victim’s rights and public safety through peer support, legal advocacy, parole board hearings, support group meetings, and annual events.

“It was the most complicated year. I’ve never seen a year like 2020,” said Rania Mankarious, CEO of Crime Stoppers of Houston. “We started the year sounding the alarm on felony bond reform. We went straight from that into COVID and everything COVID meant for our kids in schools. We knew that family violence would go up, we knew animal abuse would go up, we knew child abuse would go up, we knew certain types of crimes would peak—especially around mental health and addiction. We went straight from navigating all of that into the killing of George Floyd that summer and everything that meant to the defund police movement.”

In the midst of these challenges, Rania said that volunteers have been “angels that are sent to keep nonprofits going with time, talent, treasures, in addition to research, outreach, and ideas.” Rania shared with OneStar the many ways that volunteers have made an impact in their organization.

What are innovative ways that Crime Stoppers of Houston has leveraged volunteers in the past year?

We are a small team. We have a staff of thirteen people that serve a city and county of 6 million people and ultimately reach the entire state of Texas and beyond. It was our volunteers that rose up. It was the board, it was our Young Professionals Group, it was our Leading Women for Public Safety, it was survivor leaders, it was experts in the field. They said, “We’re coming to the table. We’re going to join you in conversations. We’re going to join you in important questions. We’re going to join you in outreach, and we’re going to make sure that this message gets out.” When you think of all the issues that stemmed out of 2020, a lot of them involved information: information on COVID, information on crime, information on George Floyd, information on the relationship between police and communities. We needed help to get that information out.

We put together bits and pieces of this entire formula of women, young professionals, young kids, board members, business partners, community partners to create unique programming that was really specialized throughout the year. It’s just been incredible. The community and the volunteers have breathed life into so many of the programs we seek to push out every day.

What value do volunteers provide to your organization?

Our volunteers create a platform for us to increase our messaging. They provide research for us when we can’t research everything that’s coming in, and they give us ideas of new issues. They help us provide media stories when media needs our input but also want to hear from people in the community. If it wasn’t for our volunteers, there would be many communities in the Houston-Harris County area and across the state that we would not be able to reach. Our volunteers bring Crime Stoppers into corners and nooks of the city and county that there is literally no way for our team to reach. They’ve listened, they sit in on meetings, they help us craft messaging, they look at different demographics, and they fill in major gaps for us.

Following George Floyd’s killing, it was hard running a public safety nonprofit whose primary partner is law enforcement. We respect law enforcement with everything we have, yet we had to have very difficult conversations. There were volunteers within the law enforcement community that spent so much time with me. I’d say, “My gosh, I feel like some of these conversations are inherently disrespectful.” And they would say, “No, it’s OK to have these conversations, and here’s why: some of the history that is being brought up is fabricated but some of it’s not. Some of it is very deeply true—and we need to talk about it.” I spent so much time listening to volunteers within the law enforcement community, oftentimes being led literally to tears, but so thankful for their stories and for the fact that they said, “OK, so now what?” Now we continue to bridge the gap. We understand, so now let’s hold hands and come together. Those were some of the most moving, emotional, stretching, exhausting moments for me, and they will never, ever leave me. They were all at the hands of volunteers.

How does Crime Stoppers of Houston attract volunteers?

The key is making your mission relatable, and for most, that’s very easy to do. For us, it’s actually quite difficult. When you think of Crime Stoppers of Houston, the average person says, “That has nothing to do with me. I’m not going to be a tipster, and I’m not in an area where I’m watching crime. It doesn’t relate to me.” But we’re so much more than that Tip Line. Public safety is something every single one of us cares about. If you put a thousand people in the room, they will have a thousand different interests, hundreds of different languages, multiple different religions, orientations, dreams, and goals. But the thousand will agree that the health and the safety of themselves and their loved ones are among their top two or three concerns and priorities.

Public safety is something that we had to re-package: reminding people that we all care about it, that it is not a scary topic, and that actually it is quite empowering to understand how to take hold of public safety proactively. We don’t want to be reactive only after a crime is taken place. There are many things we can do right now to keep our kids safe, whether at school or online; to keep our business safe, no matter what climate we’re facing; to keep our neighborhoods and our home safe, our animals and the community safe, the elderly safe. There’s so much we can actively do.

How does Crime Stoppers of Houston retain its volunteers?

Keeping volunteers relies on making people feel valued. Volunteers don’t get paid for their time. Certainly it’s wonderful to put something like this on a resume, but that’s not enough to keep you coming back and volunteering at an event that helps us raise funds, or give out thousands of ID kits during a hot summer day, or research and share information that other people may not think is very popular. Volunteers have to feel appreciated. Once you’ve developed the connection and they understand the value of the message, they have to understand that we value them. It’s important to us that we constantly let them know. People want to get engaged and get their hands dirty, and it’s just wonderful for me to see huge groups—whether it’s individuals, corporate partners, or community groups—stopping and saying, “We’re going to do it. We’re going to use our employees and manpower to help you get a job done.”