Every generation, I believe, is graced with challenges that seem unique to that era. My grandmothers were teenagers during the 1918 flu epidemic and, among other things, they lived through poverty, troubled marriages, raising families on their own, and two World Wars. Their children, my parents, struggled through the Great Depression while living separated from their nuclear family. When my parents married, at ages a little later than many thanks to WWII and the Korean Crisis, they had faced their share of hardships.
Not surprising that when my siblings and I complained about things like riding around in an older model car and not having a color television, my parents had little sympathy for us. In fact, when anyone complained at all or uttered the words “I’m bored,” one of our parents would stop, their back would snap into a locked upright position, and invisible but oh-so-sharp eye-daggers flew toward us via the dreaded Stink Eye. Uh oh.
“Well, maybe you need to find some way to make yourself useful rather than merely ornamental.” Or, “You want things to be better? Go find a way to make them better!”
Useful?! Better?! Weren’t those grown-up tasks? When that gauntlet hurled our way, we learned to exit quickly to sulk privately. Arguing resulted in a laundry-list of ways we could become “more useful” at home and in the community. *Get over to the church and see who needs some help! *Go clean the dog poop up in the back yard. *You look healthy enough: go next-door and ask Mrs. Ferguson if she needs someone to mow her lawn. *Go ask that new kid across the street if they want to play!
Their lists never ended. Helping others? We barely got by ourselves. As a child I had 1 pair of shoes, meat showed up primarily as flavoring in large pots of beans, weekends we picked wild greens and canned free fruit to save money. The notion of volunteering seemed to belong to wealthy folks.
Nevertheless, as a young mother I began to help out with Scout troops, baked for school and work functions, took on additional duties, helped when someone asked. Later some duties fell away and others took their place. When I semi-retired, I got my bearings, created some goals, started looking for work that would fit within my grandchildren’s school hours, and then along came ‘Rona.
In January 2020, when I first heard about the novel Coronavirus, it seemed a mysterious don’t-worry virus that was stopped at ports of entry by quarantines. In February, international news held a different tone from the be-happy U.S. news and it occurred to me that something bigger brewed.
Like a large earthquake, though, it felt like everything shifted abruptly. The grandkids’ school moved online and I turned down a part-time job I had lined up because it no longer fit my schedule. For safety, I stopped going to some stores. My gym’s swimming pool closed so my favorite workout evaporated. Then came weeks of feeling helpless and adapting. Finding safer ways of buying groceries, planning for delays in shipping time, adapting to new restrictions, and dealing with health worries. Like everyone else, I struggled to picture a life beyond ‘Rona.
And I remembered griping to my parents and them telling me to make myself useful.
I gave it some thought and realized that perhaps through volunteering I could help others deal with their challenges and, maybe, make the world a little better.
I wrote down my skills, my passions, my available time, my preferences (working from home and finding work that used my master’s degree in counseling psychology or my love of stories). I looked a few places for a way to help[i] and bumped into an ad for Crisis Counselors. I applied.
Six months into my commitment, here’s what I’ve learned.
Most important: Volunteering helps other people, helps communities, and it also helps volunteers feel as if we’re helping to make the world a better place.
Volunteering improves and/or increases skills. Whatever your skills, practicing them as a volunteer will help you gain experience. Volunteering can provide an opportunity to try out new careers or industries to see if they fit you. Volunteering can help you find your next job while helping you focus on something outside yourself and making the world a better place.
Before my volunteer position, I felt very uncomfortable asking about suicide. I learned suicide is a huge issue in the US. In the last 20 years, the suicide rate in the US increased by 35%. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and the 2nd leading cause of death in ages 10 to 34 in the US. There are more than twice (2 times!) the number of suicides as homicides in the US.[ii] Asking is important in my volunteer position, and I’ve learned ways to do that without judgment and purely out of concern. Without getting into details, learning that another human is having thoughts of ending their life opens the door to finding help. If someone mentions thoughts of ending their life, anyone can help them connect with a suicide hotline, take them to an ER, or call 911 in the hopes of helping them get the care they deserve.
Volunteering connects volunteers with others. Responsible organizations prepare volunteers to connect with their clients/consumers, offer ongoing guidance, and engage with volunteers. Look for the level of support you prefer. Preparation: Many organizations provide excellent training and offer ongoing access to trainings and materials. Guidance: For the best volunteer experience, having an assigned coach or supervisor who is available to answer questions and provide support is important. Engagement: An agency working with volunteers should recognize needs and preferences. For me, for example, evening shifts fit my schedule and offer ongoing interaction that helps me feel engaged and useful. Some organizations also offer little perks ranging from awards (like Volunteer of the Month) to small treats. Take the time to look for a place that meets your needs and matches your values.
Volunteering increases awareness. In my volunteer work, I’ve connected with people whose politics are similar to and polar opposite of mine, people from different areas and cultures, LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and many often-marginalized people. Their challenges and fears are much more real to me. I’m clearly a work in progress, and I’m getting better at asking for pronouns, I remember to ask if a person feels safe calling the police (not everyone does), I offer praise far more generously. Volunteering has transformed my day-to-day life. Some of the greatest gifts I’ve received through volunteering are reclaimed curiosity, increased focus on identifying others’ strengths, and a willingness to describe those strengths back to others.
Volunteering improves your health. This is particularly true for elders but has health and happiness benefits for all ages. See this report for some awesome details![iii]
This quote from Kofi Annan sums up volunteering quite well: “If our hopes of building a better and safer world are to become more than wishful thinking, we will need the engagement of volunteers more than ever.”
Think about sharing your extraordinary gifts. Volunteering has helped me see my worries and inconveniences more clearly and left me feeling humbled, blessed, and as if I’m making a difference.
May you be happy, healthy, safe, and strong.
Last words: Please remember that neither my opinions, my experiences, nor resources I mention are meant as cures or treatment. If you’re in a moment in your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[iv] If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline.[v] You deserve support and to know someone has your back.
Copyright D.R. deLuis 2020
[i] I found what I was looking for at www.volunteermatch.org and also looked on www.idealist.org. Other options include Good www.good.org, Volunteer Weekly www.volunteerweekly.org, and the faith-based Volunteers of America www.voa.org. You can also contact churches, larger nonprofit agencies, animal protection agencies, and local government offices.
[iii] https://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/07_0506_hbr.pdf Note: this report is from 2007 but it seems the information would still apply unless some controversy arose regarding the data.
[iv] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .
[v] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call 1-800-273-8255 or visit the website to text/chat at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/. To reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.