My first taste of volunteer work came when I was 12 years old. It was 1976, and McDonald’s restaurants were encouraging kids to host carnivals to raise funds for muscular dystrophy. Though I had little understanding of muscular dystrophy, I loved a backyard party. My philanthropic mother had planted a deep seed in me regarding helping others. “To whom much is given, much is expected” was our motto.
I received my carnival kit and recruited the neighborhood kids to help. We had a fortune teller, sno-cone table, games of chance and more, raising about $70. But the major payoff was that I fell in love with good causes.
Since then, I’ve volunteered as a swim buddy for kids with spina bifida and worked with various organizations that focus on environmental issues, homelessness, poverty and AIDS. These days, I volunteer weekly at a soup kitchen, washing dishes and passing out fruit (when we have enough) to the down-on-their-luck men and women who come inside for soup and community. I also chair an eco-committee at my kids’ school. And though it seems counter-intuitive — after all, I’m a busy mom of three — I find myself with more energy to tackle my other commitments.
Volunteer for your health
We may believe that we’re volunteering to help others, but it actually benefits ourselves. A recent study of more than 1,100 adults aged 51 to 91 revealed that volunteering actually made them less susceptible to high blood pressure. All participants started the study off with normal blood pressure. Four years later, those who put in at least 200 volunteer hours a year — didn’t matter what they were doing — were 40 percent less likely to have higher blood pressure. And it’s not just older folks who benefit. Another study revealed that volunteering reduced cholesterol in teens.
Volunteer for your happiness
But it’s not just our physical heath that benefits; those who volunteer are more likely to consider themselves “happy.”
It’s a hard thing to explain. A woman I know, who also volunteered at the soup kitchen, quit because she found it too “depressing.” I, on the other hand, practically skip out the door after my shift. Sure, it can be hard to see so many people (a number that grows daily as yet another factory just closed its doors in my city) who are dirty and hungry. But what makes it easier is knowing that I am making an impact. I can’t offer a job or housing. But I can treat them with dignity and kindness, something far too few of us experience in our lives. I can help fill their bellies with nourishing food. At the very least, I can make sure that, when they arrive, they receive a clean bowl and spoon. Those gifts are not to be underrated.
I also feel buoyed by the eco-committee I chair at my children’s school. Working on environmental issues has been a challenge of late. And frankly, there have been many times I’ve despaired. But working with these kids who approach complex environmental issues with determination, optimism and understanding reminds me that “it ain’t over til it’s over.” And there’s work to be done.
Volunteering makes my life richer. I feel a deeper connection to my community. I feel a greater purpose in my own life. I know, when I put my head on my pillow each night, that I’ve done something to lighten someone’s load. I’ve helped and been helped in the process.