It seems to me….
“Be of service. Whether you make yourself available to a friend or co-worker, or you make time every month to do volunteer work, there is nothing that harvests more of a feeling of empowerment than being of service to someone in need.” ~ Gillian Anderson.
This is going to be something I rarely do: an appeal to you to become involved in helping others. Volunteers are always in short supply; the opportunities to become personally involved are endless. While many of you already volunteer for some cause – and I commend you for it, there are many others who have time available with which they could be helping others in need of assistance. Everyone, regardless of what you might chose to do, can make a difference.
There are many people who willingly interrupt their personal lives to help others in need. They tolerate personal discomforts, hard work, long hours, shelter living, uncertain meals, and rapid changes in their work assignments as the response evolves.
The one thing you always take away from a disaster is how the helping hand – not only from friends and neighbors but equally so from complete strangers – is readily extended to those in need. There always is a rare group of volunteers caught up in the same disaster as everyone else in the community who consider their personal problems or losses secondary to what they perceive as the greater need all around them.
For those who chose to venture into the aftermath of a natural disaster, one benefit is the opportunity to see old friends from previous deployments and to meet new ones. They all form a wondrous group, going forth wherever and whenever to provide whatever they are able to give. But providing assistance does not necessitate traveling to the scene of some disaster; numerous opportunities are available close to home.
For everyone wanting to help others, charities… whatever it might be, volunteer opportunities are available regardless of how little time you might have, your age, or your physical limitations. Volunteerism is understandably not always fun; it can be hard work but what you can get in return is immeasurable. You can’t help everyone in need but those to whom you can provide some assistance will always be grateful.
People volunteer for a wide variety of reasons, especially wanting to help others. But it’s also OK to want some benefits for yourself from volunteering. Some people are uncomfortable with the notion that a volunteer “benefits” from doing volunteer work. There is a long tradition of seeing volunteering as a form of charity based on altruism and selflessness. The best volunteering does involve the desire to serve others but this does not exclude other motivations. Volunteering is not a one-way flow of assistance but a mutual activity where you’ll also learn from those you are trying to help. Volunteer activities provide a wonderful opportunity for personal development and self-fulfillment.
Though volunteers rarely speak of the benefits of volunteering which might seem too self-centered or too far from the altruistic vision of the selfless volunteer; there always must be some aspect of volunteering that is personally rewarding. Not only will you accomplish more if you love what you do, your enthusiasm will infect others. But be realistic – volunteer organizations frequently have less than pleasant tasks, difficult fellow workers, busy times, slow times, bad management, undesirable living or working conditions, or all of these. If you find some aspect of your assignment unpleasant, consider what it is like for those you are assisting.
Instead of considering volunteering as something you do for people who are not as fortunate as yourself, consider that most people find themselves in need at some point in their lives: today you may be the person with the ability to help; tomorrow you may be the recipient of someone else’s volunteer effort. Today you might be a volunteer tutoring someone who can’t read; tomorrow a volunteer ambulance corps might rush you to the emergency room. You might be active in your neighborhood crime watch: your home is protected while you also protect your neighbors’ homes. Volunteering is helping others in need but none of us know when we might be the one needing that help.
Volunteering can be far more than simply doing a good deed. Volunteering can be a great way to develop skills, learn more about career options, make friends, garner new professional contacts, get exercise, spend time outdoors/with animals/with kids, or even to just shake up your routine. There isn’t any reason that while doing good you cannot enjoy yourself while meeting your own personal/professional goals at the same time.
Part of finding the right volunteer opportunity is being honest about what you hope to learn and accomplish. If in the process of meeting your personal or professional goals you are also serving as an effective volunteer, helping to meet the goals of your particular volunteer project or role, and/or helping to move an organization’s mission forward, everyone benefits.
Volunteering is a great way to further a cause, support an organization, and make a difference in your community. It also can be an opportunity to meet new people and learn new skills. If you’d like to give something other than just money, consider lending your time and talents to organizations that are important to you. It is an opportunity to serve.
The possibilities to do something of personal interest or in accordance with your specific aptitude are endless. Regardless of what you might chose to do, there are things you can do to make your efforts both more enjoyable and beneficial.
While it usually is advisable to thoughtfully consider what you might like to do prior to becoming involved, it doesn’t normally work that way. A friend is volunteering for some group or you are asked if you could assist somewhere and that is where you stay regardless of whether it matches either your interests or experience. No problem. You are not under any obligation to remain with some group. There might even be a benefit to occasionally reinventing yourself and periodically doing something entirely different.
Considering why you want to volunteer can help you to choose the right direction for your volunteer work. Do you want to help the world or your community? Do you want to build your own skills, make new friends, and learn? Are you passionate about what you do? Do you want to share your experience with others or give something back?
It usually is best to start with something you think you can manage, where you can build a foundation for future involvement prior to moving on to more challenging activities as you gain some experience.
You might prefer to volunteer in an area in which you have experience though some people prefer something totally different from whatever they normally do or have done in the past. If you’re not sure what sort of work you like or dislike, a volunteer organization may be a great opportunity to try your hand at something different. If you enjoy outdoor work, have a knack for teaching, or just enjoy interacting with people, you may want to look for volunteer work that would incorporate these aspects of your personality. Many positions require a volunteer who has previous familiarity with certain equipment such as computers or who possesses certain skills such as an ability in athletics or communications. For these types of positions, you might decide to do something comparable to what you do every day at work or enjoy as a hobby.
Consider a group that works with issues about which you have strong feelings; perhaps an organization to which you already are supporting financially. If you feel strongly about literacy, you might volunteer at your local library or join volunteer tutors in your area. If you are a total extrovert, you might not enjoy being in a back office stuffing envelopes or filing papers. Others might find it uncomfortable going door-to-door to solicit funds. Do you love to work with people? With animals? With children? With numbers? Are you handy? Do you love to speak or to write? Organizations need all sorts of skills. There are many types of organizations so if serving food at a soup kitchen doesn’t appeal to you, consider ushering at your local theater, building homes, or volunteering at a hospital or animal shelter.
Many community groups are looking for volunteers including many you might not normally consider. Most people are aware that hospitals, libraries, and churches use volunteers for much of their work but there are many more to consider such as:
- Day care centers, Neighborhood Watch, public schools, and colleges;
- Halfway houses, community theaters, drug rehabilitation centers, fraternal organizations, and civic clubs;
- Retirement centers and homes for the elderly, Meals on Wheels, church or community-sponsored soup kitchens, or food pantries;
- Museums, art galleries, and monuments;
- Community choirs, bands, and orchestras;
- Prisons, neighborhood parks, youth organizations, sports teams, after-school programs, and shelters for battered women and children;
- Historical restorations, battlefields, and national parks.
Some people wish to travel to remote parts of the world and volunteer for the Peace Corps or other worldwide organization; others have commitments at home and are unable or prefer not to travel. Anyone desiring to venture abroad should research about what to expect, be sure their immunizations are current, and talk to others who have traveled with the organization being considered and discuss their experiences.
Don’t exclude other possibilities in your own neighborhood. If you aren’t really interested in any specific organization, consider organizing some of your neighbors to clean up a vacant lot, patrol the neighborhood, paint an elderly neighbor’s house, take turns keeping an eye on the ailing person down the street, or form a group to advocate for a remedy to that dangerous neighborhood intersection.
For those desiring a change in their life, consider volunteering where there is an opportunity to learn a new skill or gain exposure to a new situation: working on the newsletter for the local animal shelter to improve your writing and editing abilities. You might prefer a change from your daily routine: instead of an office, lead tours at an art museum or build a playground. Many nonprofits provide training for people willing to learn a new skill but be aware that such work might require a time commitment for training before the actual volunteer assignment begins. If you want to lose a few extra pounds, pick an active volunteer opportunity such as cleaning a park or working with kids. If you have been meaning to take a cooking class, try volunteering at a food bank that teaches cooking skills.
Consider including your family. There are many volunteer opportunities suitable for parents and children to work together or for a husband and wife as a team. When a family volunteers to work together at a nonprofit organization, the experience can bring them closer together, teach young children the value of giving their time and effort, introduce everyone in the family to skills and experiences never before encountered, and give the entire family a shared experience as a wonderful family memory.
If nothing else works for you and you have computer access and the necessary skills, some organizations offer the opportunity to do volunteer work from home over the computer. This might take the form of giving free legal advice, typing a college term paper for a person with a disability, or simply keeping in contact with a shut-in who has e-mail. This sort of volunteering might be well suited to you if you have limited time, no transportation, or a physical disability that precludes you from getting about freely.
Don’t over-commit your schedule. Start small. Make sure the hours to which you are willing to commit fit into your normal schedule. Do not frustrate your family, exhaust yourself, shortchange the organization you’re trying to help, or neglect your job. Don’t be too ambitious and overburden yourself if you hope to continue your activities for any length of time. Try to be consistent so coordinators can depend upon you being available to help when needed whether in a community center, hospital, soup kitchen, or whatever you select. There is a limit to both the number of places where you can be involved and the amount of time that you can spend on your volunteer activities. Be aware of your limits and match your efforts to your goals accordingly. A modest but continued activity will develop trust and help you to be able to stay involved even longer.
If you already have a busy schedule, volunteer your time for an hour or two per week or perhaps one day per month; it has to be convenient to you and your schedule. Do you want a long-term assignment or something temporary? If you are unsure about your availability, or want to see how the work suits you before making an extensive commitment, see whether the organization will start you out on a limited number of hours until you get the feel of things. Any volunteer organization commitment has a tendency to expand and fill any time you might have so it is important to have the courage to say no to what you think is beyond your ability. Better to start out slowly than to commit yourself to a schedule you can’t or don’t want to fulfill.
Always keep any promises you make, even if they were trivial ones made during casual chats. Especially about such things as when you’ll visit or some kind of service you are going to provide. This is particularly true with children who are counting on your help and relying on you. Establishing a trusting relationship with the other party is a key to success as a volunteer worker. Always keep in mind that any volunteer activity involves two parties: those who are in need of help and those who are trying to help them. The needs of the person you are trying to help should be your first and foremost priority. Try to put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself what is the best way to help them.
Keep in mind that you and your family must be your most important priorities. Volunteer workers frequently must be available when they are needed which might be on weekends, evenings, or for extended periods of time. Inevitably, volunteers end up spending less time at home which can be a possible cause of friction within their families. Never sacrifice your family or your job for the sake of your volunteer activities; obtaining the full understanding of those closest to you is extremely important.
Just as there are things you should do as a volunteer, there also are things which you should not do. As a volunteer you will become knowledgeable about the other party. In the course of your activities you will learn various sorts of personal information disclosed to you out of trust and to facilitate your activities; some of which must never be passed on to others. Protecting people’s privacy is not only respecting the rights of others but also the basis for creating trust and appreciation of volunteers.
Some people become interested in volunteering because of religious beliefs or a sense of justice but regardless of how or where you chose to help, some types of behavior are never appropriate. Even if a shelter, meeting, or other gathering is being held in your church, it never is appropriate to proselytize regardless of your opinion of someone else’s choice of faith, political opinion, or lifestyle choice. Volunteers should always be impartial and altruistically respect the rights of others. Volunteers should never attempt to discriminate, persuade, or force the other party to join a religion of which they are a member or support a political party which they favor.
To maintain the independence and freedom of your activities as a volunteer, neither accept any kind of compensation or remuneration nor give any personal money or goods as assistance. Volunteer workers help others through their emotional support and good deeds. Transportation fees and other costs involved in volunteer activities however might be covered by the organization you are assisting.
While most nonprofits always are short on volunteer help, they have to be careful who they accept. Do not be surprised if when you contact an organization you are asked to come in for an interview, fill out a volunteer application describing your qualifications and your background, and undergo a background check just as you would at an interview for a paying job. It is in the organization’s interest and beneficial to the people it serves to make certain you have the skills needed, that you are truly committed to doing the work, and that your interests match those of the nonprofit. As a volunteer possibly involved with children or other at-risk populations, there are legal ramifications for the organization to consider.
Always keep in mind that some types of volunteering can be the hardest job you’ll ever love. Bring your heart and sense of humor along with an enthusiastic spirit – which in itself is a priceless gift. You might return home following a lengthy deployment totally exhausted – and be ready to head back out again a week later.
I’m not sure whether it’s plain dumb luck or just having been in the right places at the wrong times, but I’ve seen my share of hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, Southeast-Asian monsoons, floods, blizzards, earthquakes, wildland fires, and just about everything else Mother Nature throws at us. So far, though, I’ve dodged the volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.
I’ll always remember the first disaster to which I ever responded. I was in flight training with the Air Force in southern Texas in 1958. The Rio Grande had flooded resulting in extensive damage along the river. A call went out for volunteers and I was assigned to help at a Catholic orphanage.
The flood waters had receded but there had been considerable damage to the area around the orphanage – trees, shrubbery, storage units – though apparently little to the actual structure.
After cleaning up the place for a couple of hours, several of the nuns approached me and asked if I would be willing to spend the rest of the day with the kids, most of whom were around ten years old or less. The nuns seemed to think the damage was relatively minor and the kids were more important anyway.
There had been a small group of kids hovering around me, clinging to me (!) since I arrived, and I eagerly agreed. I was an only child and always envious of my friends who had brothers and sisters but never had spent much time around young children. The most difficult part of that day was when it came time to leave the kids and return to the base. I was totally in love with all those wonderful young creatures….
I continued to return to the orphanage on successive weekends as my flight assignments permitted. The visits decreased when my training schedule became too demanding, then totally stopped when I was assigned to another base.
The nuns at the orphanage never knew how much that experience meant to me. I, on the other hand, have never forgotten it.
That’s what I think, what about you?
 Gillian Leigh Anderson is an American-British film, television and theatre actress, activist, and writer.