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Minneapolis shows why it's rated No. 1 in volunteerism

The city's large pool of experienced volunteers helps aid recovery after the bridge collapse last week.

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As Dave Scharnhorst drove the final spans of the I-35W bridge last week he saw a construction worker run, then seem to shoot, into the air. In reality, the road underneath Mr. Scharnhorst's car had given way.

Driving steeply up to safety, he parked and headed back with some of the workers to help. "I found myself wandering around, feeling: Somebody tell me what to do and I'll do it," says Scharnhorst.

Then he spotted a woman emerge from a car, shaking. He comforted her and helped her find her husband. "I got to talk with her and calm her down, which coincidently was calming me down," he says. "I had something to do."

As the scenes in Minneapolis played out on TV, people across Minnesota and the world would have the same urge to help.

Offers of aid spike after disasters, but first-response agencies sometimes struggle to accommodate these goodwill offers because the initial need is for trained, experienced volunteers. Minneapolis, however, leads the nation in volunteerism, providing a deep pool of veteran helpers when tragedy struck.

"Having a large corps of people who are trained and prepared has helped enormously," says Courtney Johnson, spokesperson for the Minneapolis-area American Red Cross.

Trained volunteers have assisted in every aspect of the response, from grief counseling to food preparation and crowd control. Some of the divers who have been risking their lives among the wreckage are special deputy volunteers who have worked on police teams for years.

Twin Cities: Nearly a million volunteer

Just weeks before the bridge collapse, a report from the Corporation for National & Community Service found that Minneapolis-St. Paul led the nation's cities with a 40.5 percent volunteer rate. Nearly 1 million residents chalked up 106.7 million hours per year between 2004 and 2006. The group credits high homeownership and education levels in the Twin Cities.

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