Who is a volunteer? Someone who gives a bit of his or her time, free of charge, to a cause, or an organization, or an event, or another person. When people speak of volunteering, it often becomes this big issue of giving to others, performing “social service”. Well, I volunteer for strictly selfish reasons. I do it for myself. Here are my top 10 reasons for being a volunteer whenever the opportunity arises. 1. You learn new life skills and to get a peek into a profession different from your own: Volunteer opportunities often give an inside view of a profession other than your own. Folks who volunteer to build homes learn all kinds of useful carpentry and plumbing skills. Those who volunteer in community kitchens get to be "chefs" for a little while. I have learnt to scale up recipes to 100 or more servings with ease, and to make complete meals out of odd collections of the ingredients at hand. Many volunteer opportunities are exercises in management and organization. 2. You get fabulous opportunities. Being a volunteer can provide the opportunity to travel abroad, learn new languages and so much more. Those who volunteer to run marathons sometimes get access to professional trainers. I recently got the chance to teach a cooking class. I have also had the opportunity to attend classes taught by professional chefs by simply being the volunteer helper for that class. 3. You get some exercise. If you are bored by the thought of exercising alone in a gym, consider a volunteer position which could get your muscles to work, such as working in a community garden, lifting heavy pots and pans in a community kitchen or doing a walk/run for an event. Some of my most inspiring friends are "regular" people who have become athletes and run in marathons. 4. You get to be around motivated people. It turns out that the people who spend their free time doing volunteer work are often wonderful souls with big hearts and great attitudes. I have learnt a lot from being around these inspiring people, and have made valuable friendships with those who volunteer at the same places that I go to. 5. You get a chance to meet people very different from yourself. Most of us have friends who are in the same tax bracket, age group and socioeconomic group as ourselves. When you volunteer, you meet people who may come from completely different backgrounds and it is an eye-opening exercise to get to know them. I learned to appreciate people as individuals, that the elderly person who needs donated meals is not a statistic but has funny stories to relate and life experiences that I can learn from. My biggest lesson in sharing came from a malnourished homeless child (in a school for street children) who, when offered a cookie, broke it in two and gave me one half. Over the years, I have been learning to get off my high horse and learn “where people are coming from” and it sure has made me a little sober about my views and attitudes. 6. It provides a surge of positive energy. It is just depressing to watch the news or read the papers and see nothing but injustice and destruction everywhere in the world. But going out there and doing something small- smaller than even a drop in the ocean- can provide a ridiculous amount of hope and happiness. It makes you feel like you do have some amount of control over what goes on in our world. 7. It makes you feel more connected. When I moved to St. Louis, I had several months on my hands while I looked for a job, and in a new city without many friends, the days could become long and lonely. When I started volunteering, I suddenly felt useful and connected, as if I was now part of the local community. In a few weeks, people at the place where I volunteered started to rely on me as their “vegetable cook” and I finally felt like this city was home, where I had a place in the grand scheme of things. 8. You learn to count your blessings. Seeing the relentless hardships that people encounter- crime, poverty, disparities, illness- makes me grateful for everything I have. When I get into a petulant mood and start whining about small things that go wrong, I am more compelled to stop and look at the big picture and allow myself to be happy and contented with my own life. 9. You develop a problem-solving attitude. There is no end to the problems in this world and it is all too easy to rant about them. It is much harder to do something about it. The volunteer spirit teaches you to think about ways to do something about any problem you come across rather than watch helplessly or simply complain. 10. It is a great team-building exercise. At the community kitchen, I often see groups of coworkers come in to volunteer as a group. It is fun to see the "office" barriers drop and how the group dynamic improves as they make banana bread (or whatever) together. Many people who have children don’t feel like they can take time away from their families to do volunteer work. But for children of school-going age and beyond, the whole family can volunteer together. What a great way to teach children some solid values!
Being a volunteer is a state of mind. It can be something that we do for a hour or two every week or month or it can be a one-time thing. It is something thoroughly enjoyable and fulfilling and it is such a pity that more of us don’t do it more often. Whether you donate blood, spend the morning planting flowers in a community garden, conduct a bake sale, run a marathon, train your pet to be a therapy animal and take it to hospitals…there are volunteer opportunities for everyone, in every place, to fit every schedule.
I think it is really important to think of volunteering as something we do for our own happiness and well-being rather than some form of charity that we do for others. As giving BACK; as gratitude for all our good fortune, rather than simply as giving something away as if we were such magnanimous souls. As something we do on an everyday (or weekly or monthly) basis as an integral part of our lives rather than something we plan to do in the intangible future, in that mythical moment “when I have more time”. I say- the time is now! Do something good for yourself- become a volunteer.
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