Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I want to give back. Where do I begin?

As the holiday season approaches and we as a society enter a time where gratitude is on our minds, I'd like to give you something to think about. Did you know that each and every day volunteer organizations are meeting the needs of our community in a quiet but vital undercurrent? These organizations serve food, provide companionship, give transportation, care for animals, assist school kids, coach sports teams, provide medical assitance...the list goes on and on. While many of these organizations have limited numbers paid staff, most would not run without those vital people who are willing to give up an hour, a day, a week of their time. The cost to society if these needs were not met would be great on all levels.

 You probably knew this already. I find that people often do recognize the importance of volunteering and the critical role volunteers play in our communities. The trouble they run in to is knowing where to start. And that is where I believe I can help.

 See, volunteering should work for everyone. It can be hard to find the extra time in our schedules to work for free. Believe me, I get it! So think of it like an exercise class. Me personally? I'm not in to running. No offense to those of you who are; but if you see me running you should assume a dinosaur is chasing me because it will never be my go-to activity. At the same time, I love yoga. I can find time in my schedule to hit the mat now and then- because I love it. It fits.

 A volunteer job is the same way. If dogs scare you and traffic gives you anxiety you probably won't be able to pencil in volunteer time at an animal rescue or a Meals On Wheels route for long. Most likely you will start with a great enthusiasm for making the world a better place but that will taper off as your work schedule gets busy and your family needs increase. On the other hand, if you love reading and choose to volunteer at your local library, those hours you committed to the job can become your respite from a hectic schedule.

Now the question is this: how do you know what will be a good fit? If you haven't volunteered before or don't know what opportunities are available, where do you start?
For that, I give you this advice: think about 4 people in your life who have helped you form your worldview. These doesn't need to be mentors or people you have spent long hours with. Though loved ones and mentors certainly can be your inspiration, also think of people who have formed your "postcard" memories. A stranger who lent you a blanket or umbrella during a particularly rainy soccer game; a lady down the street who gave you tips on gardening when you were young; a veteran whose experience gave you glimpse in to what it really takes to live in "the land of the free". Once you have those influential people and moments in mind, consider what they all have in common. Were you grateful to be warm and dry? Glad of the companionship or happy to know more about growing food? Humbled by the experience of a soldier or moved by the need for more advocacy? The answers to these questions will tell you where to begin your volunteer search.

 For me one of those postcard moments was a childhood friend named Frank. I was 4 years old and lived across the cul-de-sac from an apartment building that housed senior citizens. Frank was a senior who acted as caregiver for his ailing wife. I don't remember what Frank looked like. I think he was tall, but at 4 years old everyone seemed tall to me. All I remember is that he would meet me at the mailbox with a smile and ask me how my day was. I loved talking to Frank. He was an adult that I wasn't related to who valued me as a person. He also lent me baking supplies when my mom was short for a recipe and I wanted cookies. And he made me a quilt that is still in my family's possession to this day.

 Fast forward 30 years. Today I manage two Meals On Wheels People sites. People often ask me what my motivation is in doing this work. Frank remains a big part of that motivation. Frank made me feel validated when I was younger. I'd like to make people Frank's age feel validated now. At the same time my work with Meals On Wheels has made me really appreciate food safety- so when it comes my turn to volunteer for a sports team, I am totally on it with the snack shack. I even enjoy it. Heck, I'll do it an extra time or two. But ask me to count plays and I will probably have a hard time making that work.

  The world has many helpers and yet there is never a shortage in need. Filling those needs can seem overwhelming. So as you approach the holidays with thoughts of gratitude and giving back, consider this: you can't fill all those needs. You can, however, fill the needs that you were called to fill. Start there and the whole world will be better (yours included).

Know how you want to help? Here are some links to get you started.