YOU Magazine - June 2010 - Giving Back to Your Community How You and Others Can Benefit from Volunteering
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Jeannie O'Grady     Jeannie O'Grady
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Giving Back to Your Community
How You and Others Can Benefit from Volunteering


Giving Back to Your Community  - How You and Others Can Benefit from Volunteering

Take a look around your neighborhood or your community. Chances are, you'll notice at least a few things that are either overlooked or are in need of a little help.

Maybe there's a non-profit organization that needs its lawn mowed or help collecting food for the needy. Perhaps there's a youth camp that needs people to take kids on a hike or children at a child-care center that would love to have an adult read books to them once a week.

That's where volunteering comes in! It only takes one person and a small amount of time to improve not only those issues, but to also improve the lives of the people around you who also care about and need those services.

To help us understand how even little acts of kindness and contribution can make a big impact on your community, we turned to Shelly Rachanow, author of the If Women Ran the World, Sh*t Would Get Done and What Would You Do If YOU Ran the World?

One of Rachanow's favorite quotes is from Marian Wright Edelman, who said:

"We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily difference we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee."

Rachanow looks at those words as a powerful call to action. "Whatever 'small daily difference' you want to make, take Nike's advice and 'Just do it,'" she says. "Even if it seems small to you, it will feel huge to everyone and everything that benefits from it."

Personal Gains from Giving Back

In addition to benefitting your community and those around you, there are actually a number of personal gains you can experience when you volunteer. Here are just some of the personal benefits that people cite:

Sense of accomplishment–One of the biggest benefits that people cite as a result of volunteering is the sense of accomplishment that comes with the work. Sometimes it's the pride of seeing a project completed. Other times it's seeing the faces of the people who benefit from the work after you do it. And still other times it's just the unsung reward of knowing that you turned what could have been a bad situation into something full of hope and potential. As Marian Wright Edelman once said, "You really can change the world if you care enough."

Giving back–Many people feel blessed for their good fortune and simply want to give back. Whether it's the love of family and friends, a steady job, health, or inner happiness, we all have things to feel fortunate about. Giving something back to the community offers us a way to share those blessings, to help others enjoy them for themselves, and to truly feel thankful and alive. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it, "When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die."

Making a difference–We all see things that we wish could be different. Sometimes they're small changes; other times they're more major. But by volunteering we can start to make the change rather than simply wish it would happen. After all, "our work as citizens is a lot like housework," Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder once said. "It never ends. We can either wring our hands in despair or use them to roll up our shirtsleeves and try to find new ways to make a difference."

Personal growth and development–When you choose to get involved with a volunteer project, you're also choosing to grow as a person. Maybe you'll end up learning more about yourself or the people in your community. Maybe you'll end up developing new skills as a result of your work on a project. Either way, you'll probably walk away with a renewed sense of confidence and self-esteem.

Family bonds and values–Volunteering can be an individual passion or a family activity that brings you closer together. You can even make it an activity for a family reunion – complete with t-shirts and a celebration afterwards. And, when you involve children in the act, you'll help instill in them a sense of commitment and service to their community as well as subtle lessons about the elements of your community that you value and why.

Sense of belonging–In the end, one of the biggest personal benefits that people get from volunteering is a sense of belonging. Society today is often individualized – just look at how most people listen to mp3 players rather than gather around a radio. By coming together for a common cause, we quite literally come together. We get to know our neighbors and people we might not normally meet. We share stories. We laugh. We help one another. And maybe we walk away knowing that if we ever need a shoulder, there will be someone there to help us in our time of need. Yes, we get all that from volunteering just a few hours here or there.
 
So What Can You Do?

According to Rachanow, the answer is simple and she finds inspiration in a quote from Helen Keller:

"I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do."

As Rachanow explains, "It can be so easy to get discouraged when we turn on the news. But like Helen Keller said, we don't need to do everything. There is something each of us can do."

The real answer to making a difference is through small acts and volunteering that will branch out.

"If you ran the world…and had unlimited access to resources, you could immediately and single-handedly make each of your communities a better place. Whether you wanted to hold a book drive in your neighborhood, create a family fun day at your office, or help runaways, the homeless, or anyone else who ends up on your streets, you would have everything you needed at the snap of a finger to put your awesome ideas into immediate action," Rachanow said. "The great thing is, choosing to help out in your communities today and in anyway, no matter the size of your resources or amount of time you have available, is just as important – and even more amazing since more than a finger snap or two is required."

Rachanow recommends starting where your heart and passions lie. "If each of us were ready, willing, and able to help in just one of the ways that we want to help…in the way that means the most to us…we would make the kind of beautiful difference and create the kind of beautiful future everyone deserves!"

She offers the following questions as a starting place:

  • What really inspires you?
  • What do you lose sleep over or dream of?  
  • What are you unable to stop talking or wondering about (or standing on a soapbox for)?

"Whether you are already giving in the ways that matter most to you or you are still figuring out what that means, the great thing is that you never have to live up to anyone else's deadline or dollar amounts," Rachanow said. "Each of us can make a beautiful difference in our own unique and beautiful way."

Getting Started

To help you get started or find other volunteer opportunities, you may want to check out the following resources:

  • Serve.gov is an online resource for not only finding volunteer opportunities in your community, but also creating your own. Visit the site at http://www.serve.gov/.
  • VolunteerMatch.org strengthens communities by making it easier for good people and good causes to connect. They offer a variety of online services to support a community of nonprofit, volunteer and business leaders committed to civic engagement. Visit them online at http://www.volunteermatch.org/.

Never Forget the Difference You Can Make

When all is said and done, don't forget to really reflect on the difference your work can make. You're not just volunteering a few hours or working on a small project, Rachanow explained; you're changing lives and standing for something.

"When your life stands for making your community better, there is nothing small or incidental about it, especially to the person or people you impact."

In the end, the only question you really have to answer, Rachanow said, is: "What kind of difference do YOU want to make?"

Once you know that answer, the only thing left to do is start making it happen, one hour or small project at a time. So what are you waiting for?

Shelly Rachanow is a best-selling author and speaker. Her books include If Women Ran the World, Sh*t Would Get Done and What Would You Do If You Ran the World? To learn more, you can join her Facebook fan page.




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