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Thursday's article touting Sonoma County as the No. 1 region in the state for volunteerism ("The county that cares") is great news for our community.

With 39 percent of local residents contributing an estimated $414.8million of services each year, we rank 15 percent above the average California region in local volunteerism.

This is wonderful but not surprising news to our team at the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County.

Volunteerism has been an important value for this community. Since we opened our doors nearly 40 years ago, we have seen a steady increase in the number of people sharing their time and talents by giving back to those in our community who are less fortunate.

What we're seeing in Sonoma County is community spirit and generosity at its best. People are rolling up their sleeves and working together to create solutions to our toughest problems, from homelessness and hunger to the dropout crisis.

Previous research would suggest that volunteering should decline during an economic downturn, because volunteer rates are higher among job holders and homeowners. Instead, volunteering increased at the fastest rate in six years.

The good news is that volunteering isn't just a healthy trend to build strong communities; it's also beneficial to those who volunteer. Studies have shown that adults who volunteer are more likely to experience health benefits when it comes to longevity, mobility and mental health. For those who serve at least one to two hours per week, there is a significant relationship between volunteering and good health.

Research suggests that volunteer activities offer those who serve more than just a social network for support. Volunteering also provides individuals with a sense of purpose and satisfaction. In addition, researchers found statistically significant, positive relationships between volunteering and lower levels of depression, stress and reduced risk of disease.

Volunteers report greater life satisfaction and better physical health than do non-volunteers, and their satisfaction and physical health improves at a greater rate as a result of volunteering. Even when controlling for other factors such as age, health and gender, research has found that when individuals volunteer, they are more likely to live longer.

And it's so easy to get involved. The Volunteer Center matches prospective volunteers with local nonprofit agencies to help them meet their needs. In addition, we operate a multitude of programs and events that touch everyone in our community, from students to elders and individual volunteers to businesses and nonprofit groups of all sizes. Just this past year, local volunteers made a huge difference in the health and welfare of our community.

Here are some examples:

The 2-1-1 information and referral service helped 89,472 people with urgent needs, referring them to local agencies that provide food, medical care, shelter and other critical services. The top three needs were housing, health care and food.

In RSVP, 771 volunteers age 55-plus provided more than 124,000 hours to hundreds of nonprofit agencies that serve those in need throughout the county.

In the Literacy Connection, 375 volunteers spent 16,320 hours in local schools, tutoring 2,720 students who were struggling to read.

Volunteer Wheels drove 34,431 clients 499,229 miles to 31,687 doctor visits and critical appointments, enabling some of our most vulnerable neighbors to live more independently with our support.

The Human Race is the leading collaborative fundraiser in Sonoma County and the largest Human Race nationally. It raised $700,000, which helped 246 local nonprofit agencies. More than 8,000 volunteers participated.

The Resource Center for Nonprofits assisted 1,067 people from local nonprofits with training and advice through workshops and educational programs. Our annual conference brought together 280 staff and board members of community organizations with key community leaders.

Thank you, Sonoma County, for being No. 1 in volunteerism.

<i>Eunice Valentine is executive director of the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County.