Self Improvement — 19 January 2009
Volunteering is helpful to the community – and the volunteer

It may seem counter-intuitive to advocate volunteering at a time of grave unemployment and economic crisis. Yet, the merits of this activity both to the community and the individual are unquestionable.

Volunteers help various non-profit organizations stay afloat at times of reduced financial contributions and assist in providing those in need the services they deserve. The spirit of volunteering in the U.S. is strong. According to Census Bureau: “Nearly 61 million Americans volunteered in their communities in 2007, giving 8.1 billion hours of service worth approximately $158 billion to America’s communities.”

The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research identified a significant connection between volunteering and good health. Volunteers were found to live longer, have greater functional ability, lower rates of depression and less incidence of heart disease than non-volunteers.

“This is good news for people who volunteer,” said Robert Grimm, Director of the Corporation’s Office of Research and Policy Development. “This research is particularly relevant to Baby Boomers, who are receiving as well as giving when they help others. Just two hours of volunteering a week can bring meaningful benefits to a person’s body and mind.”

Those who are temporarily out of work may find that adding volunteering to their search for paid work may actually bolster their confidence and optimism essential for re-employment. It can also assist them in staying healthy during a transition period.

Volunteering is not only for Baby Boomers or older retired individuals. “The analysis shows that the state of youth volunteering is robust – with 55% of youth participating in volunteer activities each year.” The research adds that younger individuals (ages 16-19) have more than doubled their volunteer time in the last 19 years. Young volunteers benefit the community and learn new skills, master challenges and gain work experience as they bolster their competence and maturity.

Our family experienced the benefits of volunteering for the young and old alike this holiday season. We elected this year to trade our yearly traveling adventure for a local ‘volunteer vacation’ in Santa Cruz. We chose the Homeless Garden Project as our non- profit agency and the ten of us devoted a full week volunteering at the farm and the store.
We liked the Project’s motto of: “Cultivating self-sufficiency and self-esteem” and their emphasis on helping people learn work and life skills through training toward independent and autonomous life. We thought that giving back to our community, that we love, would be a valuable undertaking. What we did not realize was how personally enriching this experience would become to all of us.

The three generations processed their benefits in their own way. The seven year old summarized his week “It was so much fun to do all this work, and we helped others.” The six year old prided himself for learning to assemble boxes on his own. The eleven year old found operating the cash register under supervision, “Awesome”. The adult, middle group, found all the tasks at the store from decorating candle holders with a glue gun to sweeping and organizing, talking to and helping customers very rewarding. The senior folks were in awe of the commitment, hard work, dedication, efficacy and kindness of the Project’s staff, volunteers and trainees. Everyone stated that this experience has enriched him/her in a profound way.

• Expose your children to volunteer work from a young age: serve meals to the hungry, cook for the needy, visit the sick, teach, share your knowledge and love.
• Model the value of volunteering, wherever your passion lies, at least two hours a week.
• Talk to your family, friends and peers about creative ways to contribute to others.
• Deal with life’s necessities and create a life of purpose.
• Share volunteer experiences with your family and others. It is a right course, fun, healthy, meaningful and a benefit to all.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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