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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008 08:19 am

From esvb.org, he helps those who help others

Don’t call him “webmaster.” “Webservant” fits better.

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Untitled Document Eric Scott Volkel-Barno is a person who likes to help people. He especially likes to help people who are helping other people. A quiet person who tries to live by the motto “Speak less, help more,” he didn’t always know how to go about it. In 2005 Kres Lipscomb, his pastor at First Church of the Brethren, asked Volkel-Barno whether he knew anything about Web-site development. He decided to learn, bought some software, started reading a book, and began designing what would become 1stcob.net.
He decided to put links on the site to some of the agencies the church supports, but when he Googled them he couldn’t find Web sites for them. He then thought about putting up a separate page for each of the agencies on the church’s Web site, but somebody at the church discouraged him from this approach. “To myself I thought, ‘Fine — I will just contact the agencies and ask if I could develop a Web site for them.’ ” That’s how he got his first two “customers”: the Helping Hands Homeless Shelter (helpinghandssi.org) and Kumler Neighborhood Ministries (knms.org). “Customers” is in quotes because this 16-year state employee and father of three charges nothing to design Web sites for nonprofit helping agencies. His charge for all the work he does, several hours a day, to update and maintain the sites is the same: free. You won’t find his name on the sites he designs, because he doesn’t want credit, and he eschews the title of webmaster. He tells potential clients up front: “I have to admit that I’m not very good. I’m not a professional, I have a very simple style, and there is a whole lot about Web site design that I don’t have a clue about. But the only cost that is passed on to the agencies is the domain name, and that goes straight to the domain registrar; I don’t take any type of cut.”
With that sales pitch he has landed some major Springfield accounts over the past three years, including PORA, which helps recovering prostitutes (porahome.org), Contact Ministries (contactministries.net), the Washington Street Mission (wsmission.org), MERCY Communities (mercycommunities.com), and a dozen more. For links to the 22 Web sites Volkel-Barno has developed and maintains, go to his own site, esvb.org. As anyone would guess, his clients can’t say enough good things about him. Mary Stone, executive director of MERCY Communities: “Eric makes an important contribution to furthering MERCY’s mission of housing and supporting homeless families to self-sufficiency. Most small not-for-profits do not have in-house expertise for Web development, nor the resources to pay for it, yet it is an important communication tool. We refer people to our Web site on a daily basis with the assurance that they will access up-to-date and relevant information. Our furniture-store page is updated monthly. He takes great pride in his work, always seeking improvements. Eric’s in-kind gift keeps us in the technological mainstream, and for that we are very grateful.”
Volkel-Barno is grateful for the people he meets and the friends he’s made through his unusual ministry. “I’m just sitting here at home having fun with my computer while they’re out there doing the real work of helping people,” he says. Lately he’s taken on some Web-site projects of his own, just because he thought they needed to be done. His springfieldfaith.org (“You don’t have to travel alone.”) is an alphabetical listing of all the faith communities in Springfield with links to their Web sites. A similar listing of Springfield social-service agencies is located at esvb.org/service. His most recent project is “Springfield Reconciliation, Remembering 1908” (springfieldreconciliation.org), featuring photos of the riot, and events to commemorate it. “This anniversary is a really big deal, and I couldn’t find much on the Web about it.” On the city’s Web site (springfield.il.us), the link to “Springfield race riots” turns up nothing. Inspired by the personal stories of homeless people he’s heard at recent community meetings, he’s offered to develop a Web site for the organization Homeless United for Change. He’d like to include writings and stories of the homeless, anonymously if they’d prefer, as well as the stories of people who help them: “Everybody has a story to tell.”
“It feels really good to have finally found something I can do to help others,” Volkel-Barno says, but he’s not content with what he’s done so far. He has many ideas for ways in which his free-Web-site ministry can expand, and to get the contacts and collaborators he needs he’s even willing to leave his computer screen from time to time. “I’ve decided I have to go to more meetings and talk to people,” he says. “I have to get out more.” Meanwhile, people can contact him through his Web site, esvb.org, or by e-mail at esvb@esvb.org.
Fletcher Farrar, president of Illinois Times, is a member of First Church of the Brethren.
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