Volunteerism

I know, I’ve been horribly negligent the last week or so. Bad blogger, bad!

Imagine if you will an enormous mountain of papers and books. Fill a room with them. Now, visualize a single flailing hand extended above the mound and waving a white flag.

That’s graduate school.

So I’ll try make up some lost time this evening by posting twice. I’ve been wanting to talk about this post’s topic for a while now, so that’s even better, right? Right.

Hi. My name is Julia. I am a volunteering junkie.

I spent most of undergrad doing some sort of volunteer student activity — from collecting books for a mobile library in Kenya to building a draining wall for a new house to planning and executing a benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues.

I didn’t do these things because they look pretty on my resume or to get recognition from my peers or even because I think it’s the right thing (though it is). I did it because I really enjoy being an active member of a community. I enjoy contributing to the well-being of others. It makes me feel productive as few other things do. I’m talking about a sense of purpose, which is so often discussed and so rarely achieved.

After I graduated, I knew I needed something worthwhile to do while I was job-hunting. So I sought out two philanthropic organizations and became a volunteer. More than a year later, I’m still involved with the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) as an online hotline volunteer. See: crisis responder. And if that sounds like a party, let me tell you…

Even at my busiest, my tiredest, my most discouraged, my happiest, my most distracted, I get on the hotline four or five times a month and talk to survivors, or recovering victims of sexual assault and abuse. And nine times out of ten, it makes me feel better about my day, makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something valuable, contributed to someone and something outside of my narrow experience. It’s a fantastic feeling. And it has the added benefit of (1) putting my fairly manageable life troubles in perspective and (2) taking me away from those concerns for a while.

So I think in considering how we structure our lives, volunteerism can and should play an important role in day-to-day life. I’m lucky. I can do my volunteering from my computer, quietly and anonymously. That’s the kind of person I am. Not every volunteer project is suited for everyone. Me, for instance? I’m useless at asking for money (don’t ask me why I worked partly in the Membership department at a national nonprofit). I don’t like fundraising at all. But I know people who are completely brilliant at it. Of course, they tend to look at me like I’m a headcase when I say I don’t mind talking to children who have been molested or men and women who have been attacked.

Different types.

So how to decide what volunteer activity is best for you? Easy. First is to consider what you’re most passionate about. For me there are a big three: environmental protection, women’s rights, and promotion of the arts. They can be more or less specific in your case. Then, make a list of things you do really well and enjoy. Are you a great planner? A good listener? Especially outgoing? Have wicked computer skills? Years of outdoor activity experience? Finally, hit up idealist.org and search for organizations in your area. Many times, they’ll post requesting the kinds of volunteers they need. See what clicks. Try it out. If it doesn’t work — my second group I picked up didn’t — then move on to something else. It helps to keep an eye on things like time commitments. A lot of organizations want people to promise a year of volunteering, sometimes with a monthly requirement.

Some people are into specific community organizations that foster volunteerism: schools, churches, community groups. That’s not my cup of tea, but it might be yours. I think it’s key to keep an open mind and find things that work for you. Don’t forget, too, you’re helping someone out, making the world is a slightly better place.

And don’t doubt that it’s benefiting you as much as the people you’re helping. There’s some suggestion that altruism may even have medical health benefits.

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