You just know that this is bound to be yet another rant charging all of you animal lovers to hasten up the hill to With a Little Help From My Friends to adopt your new best friend, or to donate cash, or to peruse the Wish List on Amazon.com---Ha! Fooled you, for once. However much I DO think the above ideas are fine and dandy, and that I would not discourage you from indulging in any or all, this blog is concerned with another sort of giving—the gift you give yourself; the gift that is priceless, yet costs you nothing; the gift that gives in a multitude of ways: volunteering. While sitting waiting for an appointment, I chanced on an old magazine article on the subject of volunteerism in America.
It began with a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” Aha, I thought…that’s me. I have unlimited opinions which, combined with my early Anglo/Catholic guilt inducing education, I am now entitled to espouse since I am an eager and willing volunteer. Never mind that my current status of four hours or so per week would support only a tiny fraction of my “criticism” (a word, by the way that is value neutral—neither positive nor negative. It simply implies a commentary)—it is a start!
Interested in the subject, I began to read online about the status of volunteer activities in America. What a series of uplifting and informative sites awaited me! I didn’t realize that last year, for example, 62.6 million Americans volunteered nearly 7.7 billion hours, valued by the Department of State at nearly 173 billion dollars. Wow, we volunteers are an economic powerhouse! In addition, more than 138 million people engaged in “informal volunteering”: helping neighbors with such tasks as baby sitting, pet sitting, watching over an empty house, watering plants or helping with errands. Of course, the top volunteer activities include fundraising or selling items to raise money, preparing or distributing food, tutoring or mentoring youth and using professional experience or expertise to lend professional and management services to community organizations or members. However, the variety of volunteer tasks is staggering, and represents the entire spectrum of human enterprise. Volunteers produce community music, dance and theatrical events; staff libraries; clear and maintain wilderness trails; count birds; tag wildlife; work with prisoners; foster and train service animals; add entries to The Oxford English Dictionary and Wikipedia—the list goes on and on. In addition, volunteers are almost twice as likely to donate to a charity, as are non-volunteers. Nearly eight in ten (79.2%) volunteers donated at least $25 to a charity in 2013 compared to 40.4% of non-volunteers. (Statistics from the Dept. of State website). I hope you are feeling pretty proud of yourself right now. It is hard to imagine a world without your talents and devoted service.
The roots of U.S. volunteerism are far-reaching and deep. Americans have been banding together to help one another since colonial times. The settlers of the new colonies all had the same priority: survival. The land was a comparative wilderness and most of the familiar organizational structures were missing. Cooperation frequently meant the difference between life and death. As the first settlements became small cities, volunteering grew to meet new needs. Early street lighting was a shared responsibility of homeowners who rotated the hanging of lanterns at their front gate. “Sunday schools” were started so that poor children, working at jobs six days a week, could be taught to read on their single day off. Fire brigades were formed from volunteers and that tradition
persists up to the present day in many small communities throughout this nation. People donate blood, run parent-teacher organizations, preserve and work as docents at historical landmarks, museums and exhibition halls; work for political campaigns; use ham radios to relay calls for help (really?? Who knew?); lead scout troops, 4-H Clubs, and sports leagues. Who blogs, tweets and uses other forms of social media to advocate for political or social change? Volunteers, that’s who!
Americans (and people around the world) volunteer, not because of coercion or profit, but because they recognize a need and are willing to take responsibility for meeting that need. But because they assume this responsibility in addition to their everyday jobs and duties, and because they do not seek monetary reward, volunteers themselves usually underestimate the value of their work. I could say so much more in praise of volunteers and as a prompt to anyone who is considering volunteer work, but let me just close with this thought, again from the Department of State website: It seems safe to predict that the causes served by American volunteers will continue to change; the presence and commitment of volunteers will not.
Or as Abraham Lincoln said: To ease another’s heartache is to forget one’s own. And in the words of Lailah Gifty Akita: Good deeds awaken the good spirit of every soul.
Hope to see you at WaLHFMF or the library, or Meals on Wheels, or…