As a lifelong volunteer and to celebrate National Volunteer Week, I’m republishing a blog from 2015. I’ve edited it a bit but the point is still the same—volunteering is key to our health and wellbeing. Enjoy!
I have been involved in some sort of volunteer organization for most of my life. More recently, as an older adult, I pursued my EMT and firefighter certification so that I can serve my community in a different way. This new direction has invigorated me and allowed me to find fulfillment in direct service to those in need.
I often wonder what keeps people from volunteering. I suspect it comes from the perception that we don’t have the time or that we don’t fully identify with the needs. One of the most recent reports (pre-COVID) indicated that volunteerism was down to its lowest point since 2002. Perhaps there’s a need for volunteers now more than ever.
As a young social worker, preparing for a career in human services, I remember being taught that we needed to “look out for ourselves—because no one else will.” The purpose of this message was to help us avoid stress and burnout by having good boundaries and not taking on too much responsibility. There was also an implication that over-involvement would rob us of a fulfilling life outside of work.
Ironically, research has shown that when volunteer activities focus on others, it actually leads to better health and a greater sense of fulfillment. Plus, it allows us to experience more depth in our day-to-day human encounters.
My volunteerism has nothing to do with being altruistic and selfless, since I’m basically narcissistic and have a great love for me, myself and I. Instead, it comes from the burden I feel when I think about people who have more difficult circumstances than I do. That’s what motivates me to serve.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a local mobile food pantry. Twice each month, a truck filled with fresh vegetables and other food items pulls into a parking lot where volunteers fill bags for more than 150 people. It’s quite an amazing operation. And what drew me to this particular opportunity was the thought that so many people in my community need food and that they will stand in line for a couple of hours just to get a bag of groceries that will certainly not last until the next food truck comes around. In a country known for its abundance, this reality was unsettling.
Since I travel quite a bit, when I’m home, I like to spend my down time doing, well, nothing. It would be relatively easy for me to justify an avoidance of volunteering due to my busy travel schedule, rationalizing that I just can’t fit it in. But then it only takes a moment for me to imagine how difficult it would be to wake up in the morning without enough food to eat, or enough heat in my house, or enough clothes to wear. The realization that many people don’t have the very things that I take for granted makes my time management issues seem insignificant.
So, when it comes to serving others, I think we don’t really find the time to help, we must make the time to help. And what’s cool is that when we allow ourselves to focus on others, the physical and psychological benefits give us a healthy balance in the way we manage our own lives.
If you’re already involved in volunteering, great. Keep it up. If you’re not, I strongly encourage you to consider how you might help meet the needs of the disadvantaged people in your community—even if it’s just one hour each week.
Here are some organizations you might consider as a way to find opportunities that match your skills and interests. While this is not an exhaustive list, hopefully, it will give you some ideas.
- Department of Social Services
- Area Agency on Aging
- American Red Cross
- Town and city government
- Big Brothers/Big Sisters
- Local church, synagogue or religious community
- Retirement communities and nursing homes
- Habitat for Humanity
- American Cancer Society
- Rotary, Kiwanis and other civic organizations
Volunteering leads to greater fulfillment as we continue the journey of our own lives. It requires, however, that we see the needs around us and step up to help whenever we can. If you volunteer, it can do a body good.
Happy National Volunteer Week!