When French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville spent nine months studying the society and politics of the United States in 1831, one of his keenest observations was that Americans helped each other in times of need. He wrote: “I have seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare, and have noticed a hundred instances in which they hardly ever failed to lend faithful support to one another.”
In their 1999 article titled “The Effects of Volunteering on the Volunteer,” John Wilson and Marc Musick discuss de Tocqueville’s belief that active membership in a voluntary association creates the generalized trust on which democratic political life depends. “If the habit of ‘joining’ were allowed to die, so too would democracy.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor, about 65.4 million people, or roughly 28.8 percent of the population, volunteered at least once between Sept. 2004 and Sept. 2005.
The underlying theme that runs through nearly all research regarding volunteerism is the dual, cyclical nature of benefits that are derived from helping: those who are being helped, be they individuals, communities, or society at large, gain from the assistance, while those helping earn rewards both tangible (better physical health, a longer lifespan) and intangible (improved self-esteem, confidence, etc.)
Allan Luks, executive director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of New York City and author of the book The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others, has spent extensive time poring over scientific research, conducting surveys, and perhaps most importantly, working with volunteers, and has come to the conclusion that volunteers experience a “helper’s high” or “calm”
— a release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain-reducing chemicals — similar to the rush derived from exercise.
“‘Helper’s calm’ appears to be related to reduced emotional stress,” Luks wrote in Psychology Today. “One woman [surveyed] wrote that she treated her stress-related headaches by shopping for clothing for poor children. Another actually uses her volunteer work at a nursing home to keep her blood pressure under control.”
Charlotte Moran, a volunteer who works with Sea Island Habitat for Humanity, concurs: “You get out there [on a building site] and meet up with a group of people you’ve never met before, and at the end of the day, you’re a team, you’ve used your muscles, you’ve used your brain, and everybody just feels so good about themselves.”
Linda L. Graff, the Project Coordinator for Volunteer Ontario in Canada, used a grant to study the connection between health promotion and volunteerism in 1991 and concluded that “volunteering can generate a heightened sense of self-esteem, self-worth and confidence, reduce heart rates and blood pressure, boost immune and nervous system functioning, and overcome social isolation. … Volunteering can offer a sense of control and empowerment, offer a new perspective on one’s own problems, generate feelings of being needed and productive, offer social contact, and provide motivation for rehabilitation.”
The positive effect on the community is another benefit of volunteering, as shown in the domino effect that becomes apparent when the time, energy, and attention of a volunteer actually changes someone’s life.
Noah Moore, the Juvenile Arbitration Director with the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office and president of the Lowcountry Affiliate of the South Carolina Association for Volunteer Administrators (LA SCAVA), runs a program called community juvenile arbitration, where juvenile offenders who have committed a nonviolent crime and admitted guilt attend a hearing with their family, the victim of the crime, and the officer(s) who brought the child in, all presided over by a volunteer, who then assigns appropriate retribution.
One of the main things that volunteer coordinators stress is the flexibility of organizations and the importance of being clear and upfront about what you want to do and how much time you can spend doing it.
Sometimes when you get in touch with an organization and discuss how you’d like to help, you can discover skills or interests that you didn’t even realize could be used in a volunteer capacity. Pat Buckley, former executive director of The Sustainability Institute, illustrated this point with one of her favorite stories.
“There was an organization that helps homeless children, and there was a woman who was a trained social worker and in interviewing her and talking with her, that’s where everybody was going with the interview until they said, ‘Well, what are your hobbies?’ and she said, ‘I love to cook.’ And they said, ‘Would you mind coming in once a week and cooking with this shelter and with these boys?’ And it has become this program that the kids are ecstatic about, they get all involved in making their own food, and she makes it healthy, and it makes it for her a really special experience, and maybe the counseling would’ve been the same, but this is like a totally different experience. So we try to catch that with people that come through and see if there’s something that they really get excited about, that gives them chills.”
Having control over when and where to volunteer, along with actively choosing to help, are both factors that influence the health benefits that come along with volunteering. Matching your interests to a potential volunteer opportunity is a necessary step in the process. You can get the ball rolling with our volunteer test then direct any further questions to the knowledgeable staff over at 2-1-1.
“We know that it works, because we track these kids religiously,” Moore says, “and we know that our recidivism [reoffending] rate is less than eight percent. With the kids we incarcerate, that rate is around 70 percent. I have walked out of hearings after a session where the victim’s crying, the parent’s crying, the offender’s crying, and you leave out of there and just feel like, this was amazing. Something happened, something bigger than anything you could’ve imagined that you could’ve done. And that keeps a volunteer coming back and keeps them happy and healthy and wanting to do more.”
Moore’s program is one of the more specialized ones, where volunteers go through weeks of training and follow-up courses before they get into actual hearings. Of course, acquiring new skills is another benefit that comes along with volunteering.
“The main thing I’ve taken from working with Habitat is how much I’ve learned,” says Jack Vincent, who has volunteered with Sea Island Habitat for Humanity since 2001. “Things that you’ve never done before, you get the opportunity to do. I’d never shingled a house, or framed a house, or installed kitchen cabinets or appliances, or installed bi-fold closet doors. All of these things I’d never done before … but now I would feel comfortable if I wanted to do them on my own.”
How to Get Started
Volunteer work in the community enhances happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, sense of control over life, physical health, and reduces depression, as researchers Peggy Thoits and Lyndi Hewitt studied in 2001. The benefits of volunteering go both ways, and the United Way believes that commitments of time and resources to civic activities (including volunteerism) are a significant indicator of quality of life. Long-term studies have also shown that volunteers have a tendency to live longer, in no small part due to the strong positive effect of ongoing social contact.
So how can you begin to reap the benefits that come along with volunteering?
“The best thing for someone who wants to volunteer is to just go to or call 2-1-1,” says Noah Moore. “Their website and phone numbers are always up to date; we’re really lucky to have that in this area.”
The United Way 2-1-1 hotline (available online at www.211help.org) has been around for 30 years, but our local affiliate didn’t start to utilize 2-1-1 to connect potential volunteers to volunteer agencies until 2003, when they merged with national United Way.
“The main focus of 2-1-1 is to connect people to resources that can help them,” says Sally Burnett, Trident United Way’s Community Volunteer Coordinator. “When we merged, our charge or mission expanded to include not only folks who want to get help, but who want to give help, so for the past three years we’ve been working to build that volunteer component.”
Currently, the 2-1-1 website lists 38 different categories of volunteer opportunities, such as animals, children, tour guide/usher, coaching, food/hunger, fundraising, computer data entry, and more, with numerous organizations listed under each category. You can further narrow your search by city and/or county, too.
While accessing 2-1-1 is the easiest way to find contact information once you’re ready to get out there and do some hands-on volunteering, before you take that step, it’s good to narrow your focus to find opportunities that are right for you. First, determine how much time you have available, then consider your interests, the skills you’d like to learn, and how you can best help the organization that you end up choosing.
“Anybody can volunteer,” says Dawn Balsam, the volunteer coordinator at Sea Island Habitat. “You don’t have to plan this huge time commitment. I think a lot of people get daunted by the idea of going out every week … but you don’t have to be a retired person or have your whole week free to be able to do this. I have a friend who just picks, if there’s a special event, or a group like Habitat or the Lowcountry Food Bank, and she’ll go volunteer there one Saturday a month. You don’t have to sign your life away to one place. You can do lots of different things, and you can do them for as little or as much time as you want to.”
“The needs are fairly ongoing and the trick is to inspire people to get out and see what’s out there,” says 2-1-1’s Burnett. “The opportunities are so varied, and the benefits are just as varied. You can get experience, you can increase and expand your network, you can learn new skills, you can hone the skills you have. Do you want to be a better public speaker? Volunteer and read children’s books to children. Who needs what is a great question, and it’s limited only by an individual’s imagination.”
Of course, you could always start up your own community assistance program, as Sarah Shapero did when she began the Charleston Food Not Bombs (www.charlestonfoodnotbombs.org) program in 2000, in which she and some other volunteers collect food that’s otherwise going to be thrown away and cook up a full meal once a week, offering the food for free without any sort of restrictions as to who can sit at the table and dig in.
“I’d been active with a lot of political work and … knew that scarcity is a myth … it just takes a little bit of effort to create something good for a lot of people. I had eaten at a lot of Food Not Bombs in different towns and went to an anti-nuclear protest and helped cook three meals a day for about 3,000 people without spending any money; that was really inspiring. I would advise people to take a minute and see what they really care about and feel excited about committing their time to … and if they don’t see anything that looks exciting to them, then just start it.”
As Dawn Balsam pointed out, volunteering doesn’t have to mean committing to just one team, as it were, or even working or joining by yourself. Colleges are chock-full of clubs that often embark on volunteer missions, as are churches. Even businesses are getting on the help train, with many corporations offering group outings for employees and their families. Burnett mentions a Charlotte-based company that, when a group of managers came to town for a conference, called ahead to ask if there was an activity they could help with that would make a difference in our community.
|“They ended up assembling 700 literacy boxes and 800 food boxes,” Burnett says, “all because this company from Charlotte wanted to do the right thing when they came down here.”
Trident United Way is preparing to launch their new and improved 2-1-1 website during National Volunteer Week 2006, which runs from April 23-29. The new site will have not just links to ongoing volunteer opportunities, but to one-time events like festivals and fundraisers, plus an e-mail alert function for people who want to know about future events, board of director opportunities, leadership volunteers, and an item search.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that there is no amount of help that’s too small or inconsequential, and gleaning the benefits from volunteering is not contingent on joining a group or calling an organization.
“You don’t have to formalize your volunteer spirit or behavior or drive,” Burnett says. “You can pick up your elderly neighbor’s paper and put it on her stoop every morning. It can take all sorts of forms, from an organized Habitat house to doing somebody’s dishes who’s been in the hospital.”
In case you’re doubting how helping out just one time could possibly make you feel better, here’s one final health-boosting tidbit from Luks: “Although the feel-good sensation is most intense when actually touching or listening to someone, it can apparently be recalled.” In his survey of over 1,500 people, he found that over 70 percent of those surveyed said their “helper’s highs” would reoccur, though with less intensity, when they remembered helping.
Yes, volunteering can give you a drugless, freely reoccurring high. So go ahead, wish on those birthday candles … and then step outside yourself and realize that it doesn’t take wishes for someone to make a difference — just a little time, effort, and thoughtfulness.