Have you ever seen what happens in a group of first graders when the teacher says, “I need a volunteer”?
The hands shoot up like popcorn and every kid wants to get picked.
In contrast, have you ever seen what happens in a group of adult learners when the instructor says, “I need a volunteer”?
The adults become quiet, stare at their books, or pull out their phones as if their lives depended on the most recent Tweet, Snapchat, or Facebook update.
It’s curious how our view of this type of volunteering evolves from “pick me, pick me” to “for the love of humanity, please leave me alone.”
As we get older, I believe we become a bit more self-conscious and less likely to put ourselves in the spotlight where we might be embarrassed (except for those of us who crave the spotlight which is a different issue). And further, I think we don’t like to be forced to participate. If I’m attending a class, the instructor is supposed to be the one working. I’d rather sit back and enjoy the experience, and sometimes even check Twitter, than be forced to participate.
But what about the more traditional idea of volunteering, as in community service? What prevents us from raising our hands to do that? I suspect it comes from the perception that we can’t find the time or that we don’t fully recognize the immediate need. Some reports indicate that volunteerism is down to its lowest point since 2002 so I believe there is an immediate need now more than ever. We just need to look beyond ourselves.
As a young social worker preparing for a career in the field of community service, I remember being taught to “look out for Number One because no one else will.” The clear message was that we must take care of ourselves rather than focusing too much on others or else someone might take advantage of us and we might miss out on the opportunity to carve out the life that we deserve.
Ironically, research has shown that being focused on others actually leads to better health and a greater sense of fulfillment. Plus, I believe it allows us to experience more breadth and depth in our human encounters. Plus, it can be a lot of fun.
I’ve been a volunteer all of my life. It has nothing to do with being altruistic and selfless, since I’m quite narcissistic and have a great love for me, myself and I. Instead, I feel burdened when I think about people who have much more difficult circumstances than I do and this motivates me to respond.
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the Nelson County, Virginia Mobile Food Pantry. Twice each month, a truck filled with carrots, cabbage, milk, potatoes, onions, and other food items pulls into a parking lot where 40 volunteers fill bags for over 150 individuals. It’s quite an amazing operation. And what drew me to this opportunity was the thought that there are so many people in my community who need food, and further, 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 of abundance, this reality was unsettling.
Since I travel quite a bit, when I’m home, I like to spend time with my family. It would be relatively easy for me to justify a lack of volunteer involvement due to my schedule — I just can’t fit it in. But then it only takes a second for me to imagine how difficult it would be to wake up in the morning without enough food to eat, or enough wood to heat my house, or a clean shirt to wear. The realization that many people don’t have the very things that I take for granted makes my time management issues seem much less significant.
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, it also benefits us. It is both physically and psychologically worthwhile which gives 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 play a role in meeting the needs of the disadvantaged people in your community.
Here are some organizations you might consider as a way to find a match for 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
As children, we love to volunteer. As we get older, we become a bit more reserved. But that’s when we need to step up because volunteering leads to greater fulfillment as we complete our lives. It requires, however, that we see the needs around us and help whenever we can.
Imagine a world where everyone volunteers.