This week my daughter and I volunteered at the Atlanta Meatball Festival, benefitting Open Hand Atlanta. We often participate in activities on behalf of this fine organization, which helps people prevent or better manage chronic disease through nutrition care that combines home-delivered meals and nutrition education. We’ve volunteered for this organization many times and in many ways such as food preparation (during which we get to wear lovely hair nets, like the lunch ladies in the school cafeteria), delivering meals to shut-ins (which takes us to neighborhoods we would never otherwise experience), and participating in fundraising activities like today’s event. Whenever I volunteer for any organization, there are always people who want to know why? What’s my connection? How and why do I find time to volunteer? I’ve thought about this a lot and realized that volunteering has always been important in my life, but even more so as I get older.
From my earliest memories, I can recall standing in front of stores with my mother and/or grandmother to collect coins in a can on behalf of the leading organization supporting asthma treatments and research – my grandmother was an asthmatic so this was a personal cause. I also remember hosting carnivals with my cousins and their friends in Buffalo, NY on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Even now, I can’t watch the telethon without crying my eyes out.
As the years have progressed, I’ve done everything from being a candy striper in a hospital, walking 60 miles in three days (twice!) to raise funds for breast cancer awareness and research, volunteering as a host at the Easter Seals telethon, participating in several 5K or 10K races, organizing a bachelor auction, and much more. So why the heck DO I do all this? And why is it important? Here are my top reasons – some have always been the reason for my participation, while other reasons have evolved over the years. My hope is that I may inspire someone else to pitch in when the opportunity arises.
- What comes around, goes around – This is something I’ve seen over and over. Remember above I said I used to raise money for asthma research as a kid? Wouldn’t you know it that I developed asthma in my 40s. So I’ve actually benefitted from the advances made in treatments that my family and I helped to fund with our coin collections. The same held true with the Breast Cancer Three Day Walk. The first time I signed up with my dear friend, Denine, we did it because we wanted to set an aggressive goal that would help us both get in shape. We appreciated the cause, but not as much as once we got involved. It seems like in the five or six years since my first three-day walk, literally scores of wonderful women I know developed breast cancer, and I learned of many other friends, relatives and colleagues touched by the disease.
- Role modeling and common bonds – Much of my volunteering in the past 17 years has also involved my daughter. When she was younger, I volunteered in ways that enabled my daughter and her friends to participate in activities they enjoyed, such as by being a Girl Scout leader, Odyssey of the Mind coach, and classroom volunteer. As Zelli – my daughter – has gotten older, we now participate in activities together. Not only are we doing something good for others, but we also spend quality time together in situations that bond us in unique ways. For instance, for a “mitzvah” project related to her Bat Mitzvah a few years ago, Zelli raised funds supporting Nothing But Nets, an organization of the UN Foundation that supplies mosquito nets to kids in Africa. As a result, we were invited to a thank you reception and when we arrived at the party, we discovered they’d decided to honor Zelli for her efforts – along with the other honoree, Ted Turner. Apparently Zelli represented the grassroots efforts while Ted represented the Billionaires Club. Who knew?
- It feels so good – Not once, in all of my time volunteering, have I ever regretted the time and energy expended afterwards. I always feel good and often am blown away by the reaction or impact on the people benefitting from the activity. Even now, I can remember so many poignant moments that brought home to me that I was doing the right thing – from the little girl with Spina Bifda hugging me at the Easter Seals Telethon, to the dear friends suffering from breast cancer thanking me for walking in their honor.
- Connections – As we get older, our world changes. Our kids grow up and leave the nest, we face retirement, our friends reduce to a smaller group. It’s easy to become inwardly focused – not always a bad thing but for some people it leads to magnifying the things that are wrong, from aches and pains to grandchildren or grown kids who are not communicating often enough. I believe – and plan for it to be the case for me someday – that our senior years are the most important time to get out and volunteer. This changes the focus outwardly and keeps us connected in vital ways.
If I’ve inspired you to give volunteering a try, I recommend that you select a cause that moves you and contact the organization that deals with your issue about volunteer opportunities. They will be so happy to have you!