Volunteer: Give and Get

Volunteers rappel down to pick up trash dropped by hikers and tourists.
Volunteer: Give and Get
by Susan Basko, esq.

Volunteering can bring more meaning into your life.  If you are feeling bored or stuck, consider volunteering some time to a good activity.  My family was always strong with the spirit of volunteering to make for a better world, and I want to share that with you.  In doing so, I hope to spark you with some ideas of the many ways you can volunteer.

Volunteering can take a small amount of time, such as a few hours per month, or can take a lot of time, all the way up to a big time commitment.  The time span commitment level in volunteering can be a one-time project that takes a half a day, all the way up to being a years-long commitment.  The skill level needed for volunteering depends on the job to be done.  All volunteer jobs require a person to be reliable and on time and to do the task that is needed, but this can vary from picking up trash to searching for evidence to performing legal work or medical work.  There is almost always a cost involved in volunteering, such as paying for transportation, meals, babysitter, etc.  Some volunteer spots require the purchase or ownership of special equipment.  There is as much variety in volunteer work as there is in paid work.

There are so many reasons to volunteer your time.  The main reason is that you can make society a better place while becoming a better person.  Volunteering is character building.  Volunteering gives you a chance to do good things for others, which, in itself, is very satisfying.  You can learn new skills and build confidence in old skills by volunteering.  

I want to give some examples of volunteering that my family members, friends, and I have done through the years.  These examples are meant to give you ideas and inspire you to volunteer.

When I was growing up, my uncles helped run a group that provided an after-school club for kids in a rough inner city neighborhood of Chicago.  Every summer, the same group ran a one week sleep-away camp for the same kids.  I remember going to the fundraiser picnics that paid for the clubhouse and camp.  My uncles were just regular men, but joined together with others, they were able to make a week in the country happen each summer for children from some of the bleakest concrete spaces in the city.  I'd like to think those kids grew up better because of it.

My mother and aunt volunteered at a famous old theater that a group was saving from demolition.  To make it work financially, a group of volunteers ran and worked the front end of the theater - collecting tickets, passing out playbills, ushering people to their seats.  When the lights went down, the ushers took seats and watched the shows, which were often musical stage plays.  

My mother also volunteered to teach recent Hispanic immigrants how to speak English.  The program taught her how to teach one-on-one lessons in English as a second language.  My mother had a series of students, who attended their tutoring sessions free of charge.  My mother got a kick out of it.  She enjoyed welcoming new people to our nation.  She felt good knowing she was making them more employable and better able to support their families.

When we were in high school, my sisters volunteered at a tutoring program in "the projects."  They went to a housing project and tutored students in their schoolwork.  Both of those sisters went on to get teaching degrees and certificates.  One went on to run a mentoring program where the accomplished adults and community leaders in her city come in and mentor students in reading by sitting one-on-one with a student who reads to them.  It is said that mentoring a student in this way helps them to read and also builds their self-esteem, so they set higher goals for themselves.

Some of my friends run a volunteer activity that provides free hot soup to over 100 people three times a week.  This is their way of addressing the food insecurity of people in their city.  They gather donations of food and disposable bowls and utensils, prepare big pots of nutritious soup and bread and muffins.   They take the hot soup out to the same location three evenings a week and feed whoever shows up wanting a free meal.  My own family has helped with this wonderful activity and have found it good in every way.  

One of my family members volunteers with a mountain search and rescue group.  This is a volunteer activity that is hard to get into.  There is a complex system of application and being selected, and an ongoing rigorous program of training sessions in things such as communications, emergency medical treatment, rope climbing, rappelling, biking, running, orienteering, carrying a person, and much more.  There is also a significant expense involved, since each volunteer must pay supply their own clothing and equipment and supplies, as well as providing their own transportation.  As part of this group, my family member has helped rescue many lost or injured people, as well as helping to recover and carry out a few people who did not survive.  

I personally have done a huge amount of volunteering, often such things as saving historic buildings or working to make an area more livable for pedestrians by getting walk lights and pedestrian crossings installed.  My volunteer efforts have used my specialized skills of advocacy and organization.  I have also participated in several zoning boards where we would be presented with proposals by developers and then give our feedback or recommendations. 

One of my other main areas of volunteer work has been to help people and groups that want to run a legal, peaceful protest.  I have helped people all over the U.S. and all over the world to understand where and how they can protest, how they can determine if a permit is needed, how to obtain a permit if one is needed, how to schedule a protest and plan the agenda to keep the protests safe and meaningful.  I have helped people from all over the political spectrum with running protests, as long as they want to run a legal, peaceful protest.  I also run a blog that tells people how to do these very same things.  It is very fulfilling to know that I have helped people all over to engage in their basic rights of freedom of association and freedom of speech.

I have also done one-day volunteering sessions.  One I recall was with a group that plants trees in the city.  We spent an afternoon taking care of trees the group had planted the year before.  First, we were trained, and then we broke into pairs.  Each pair handled a row of trees.  We cleaned, dug, mulched, watered, and added new protective mulching materials at the base of the trees.  By the end of the afternoon, I was tired, hot, and streaked with dirt.  It was a wonderful experience and I learned basic maintenance of a tree.  Before that, I had never realized how hard it is for a tree to survive in the city, amid air pollution and misuse.

One of my young relatives has been volunteering at his local library for about 6 years now.  He helps with the reading club for younger children.  He runs the reading club desk when children come in to say which books they have read and to collect their points and prizes.  He also sits on the library teen board, reading and reviewing books and making recommendations.  This activity combines his love of reading with his natural kindness toward younger children.  He started volunteering at this when he was about 11 years old.  He was old enough to show up on time and take his duties seriously.

I know a man who runs an organization that builds gardens for schools.  They work with the school principals to design a space with growing areas and planters, benches and work tables, an outdoor sink.  Then, the group gathers volunteers who come in for a whirlwind of hard, highly organized work and build an amazing outdoor space in a day or weekend.  The volunteers carry wood, shovel and haul dirt, drill holes and screw screws.  At the end of the day, they have turned a dilapidated empty space into a wonderful outdoor nature learning area.  They are always looking for hard workers with lots of stamina and the ability to closely follow instructions.

I have friends who have volunteered on a suicide hotline.  They had to apply and be selected, and then were trained.  Apparently, weekend nights are big times for people to contemplate suicide, so the volunteers were needed during those time slots.  My friends would volunteer one or two weekend nights per month.  They said it was very difficult work, but very worthwhile knowing they were saving lives. 

I know a plumber who volunteers one day a year to go to schools and homes of people who need a specific plumbing job done.  He has gone in and put in a toilet or sink or cleaned a sewer line, or whatever needed doing.  This volunteer day is organized by his plumbers' union.

Whatever your specific skill set is, there are volunteer opportunities to match it.  You can even create your own volunteer activity.  I often see a man who walks around picking up litter on the street.  He's out there making the world a little bit nicer.

If you are looking for your first volunteer activity, you can usually find notices in your local paper, on bulletin boards, or on Facebook groups.  If you have a special skill set, look for opportunities that will make good use of it.  If you have an interest you would like to explore, look for a volunteer activity that will bring you in contact with others who have the skill set you desire.  

Be realistic about how much time and money you are able to spend on volunteering and how much is required for the activity you are considering.  Maybe you want to do a one-time activity that lasts 3 hours and costs only your transportation.  Maybe you are enticed, like my relative on the mountain search and rescue team, to join an activity that is all-encompassing.  Find what is right for you.

There is a famous old quote from the late President John F. Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country."  To that I would add, "Ask what you can do for  your city or your neighborhood or your school or your park or your library or your street."  Go for it!