50 Thoughts: Three Cheers for Volunteers

Originally published September 14, 2018

I’ve never considered myself an over-the-top volunteer kind of gal. Truth be told, I’m fairly protective of what little free time I have. And if someone asked me if I am an avid volunteer, I’d likely look at them like they were crazy.

But now that I think about it, I kinda am.

Maybe it’s because I can’t quite put a finger on how I came to think it was important. I mean, sure — my mom was my Girl Scouts leader and remains really active with church activities, and my dad is the quintessential civil servant, working for HUD for decades, and VISTA before that. But volunteering — offering service of myself for others — wasn’t something I ever felt was browbeat into my persona.

Still, the desire and action has been there for as long as I can remember, bubbling on the subconsciousness. From participating in fundraising walks as a kid, to volunteering time at a center for grieving kids. From every “mom” role one can serve at school, from popping popcorn to organizing room parties, helping kids read and sitting on the PTA, I’ve done it. I taught Sunday School, I was a soccer and hockey mom and manager, I’ve timed at swim meets and organized team dinners, I’ve carried scenery for marching band competitions and chaperoned cross-country trips. JA, Meals on Wheels, you name it.

If I think about it, there are two overarching reasons I am willing to donate time, money and energy. And they lie on opposite ends of the spectrum.

One is entirely selfish. And it’s that it’s social. By getting involved, I’m making friends. Some of the best people to float through my life are there because I volunteered with them at one time or another. When I quit work to stay home after my third child, the every other Friday spent popping popcorn for the school PTA was a godsend — an opportunity to shoot the shit with another adult and get face time, even inadvertently, with my kids’ teachers.

When I was still working, volunteer committees were a great way to network. To meet other people and get to know my coworkers.

And with the activity-based volunteering, it was again, a chance to make another circle of friends, all while keeping one eye on my kids. My hockey mom circle, marching band circle and swim circle all have been incredibly meaningful, especially as you get older and high school and college friends are harder to stay in touch with over time.

The second reason is decidedly more altruistic. And it’s this — if you don’t step up to volunteer, who will? There are two places in particular that I am so glad I was able to be a part of the organization. One was Ele’s Place in Michigan — a nonprofit designed to provide care to grieving kids. When I lost my birth father at 12, I remember going to a similar program, and knowing I could easily empathize with these kids, well … I just wanted to help. The other is Girls on the Run, a national nonprofit offering girls in 3 – 8th grade a program that teaches confidence and resilience wrapped up in a train-for-a-5K experience. I was a girl that never thought she could run. And in my late 30s and early 40s, when I discovered I could run, and that the feeling that comes from crossing a finish line and accomplishing something is so fulfilling, I wanted to share that with my daughter and other girls her age. I snagged a co-coach, made another great friend, and together we helped upwards of 50 girls find their confidence over the course of three years. And I know some of them continued running into high school. Yay!

At the end of the day, I wish everyone would find their volunteer groove and slip into it for awhile. People need you. And stepping up isn’t just a benefit to the organization you choose to help, it’s immensely gratifying on your end as well. The friends you make and connections forged are priceless. The next time someone asks if you can help out, lean in instead of out.

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