Americans are the most generous people in the world when it comes to donating money and goods to those in need – you don’t have to take my word for it, it is well documented that we give more per capita than any other country. We also log hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours at community and charitable organizations. Recent statistics show that 83.9 million Americans volunteer and their contribution is valued at $239 billion. Volunteerism is a basic part of the fabric of American society but it is not as common in other parts of the world, especially countries where people have been conditioned to look to their government for all their needs. Americans have roots in the rich soil of independence and personal responsibility – from the first colonists, to the pioneers, to every wave of new immigrants; we have relied upon ourselves and each other for our survival. Volunteerism started with neighbors and grew through the establishment of religious, charitable and fraternal organizations and now it is just ingrained in the American character to help those in need (in this country and all over the world) and work to improve our communities. Don’t ever forget that we have an all volunteer military.
I’ve been on both sides of volunteerism – I’ve been the director of programs that rely upon the help of volunteers and I’ve been a volunteer – and one thing I have learned is the importance of understanding your reason for volunteering. People volunteer for many reasons, not all of them good. If you’re in it for your ego – you want to boss other people, show your importance, brag about how special you are, be acknowledged with awards, add to your resume – you should step back and think about your motives. I think doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is the same as doing the wrong thing. You know the old chestnut “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. If you’re following a genuine desire to support your community or help people or animals in need then you are serving your higher self and you will get all the rewards you need. Even if you volunteer for all the right reasons, it is still important to choose the right place. Volunteering is often suggested as the perfect antidote to loneliness or boredom but you should also be sure that you choose something that speaks to your heart or captures your interest. Be true to yourself and you will be a blessing to yourself and others.
Volunteering can be a great learning experience. My first volunteer work was at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. I was a stay at home mother with a one year old baby and I wasn’t even thinking about volunteering but, one night I watched a movie on TV about domestic violence and I was so moved by it that I wrote down the 800 number that was shown at the end. I was not a victim of domestic violence, nor was anyone I knew, but my heart told me to call and ask if there was anything I could do to help. I volunteered at a shelter for the next 3 ½ years and I learned a lot about myself through helping others in need. That was 35 years ago and my experience at the shelter planted the seeds for a career in social services and also led to quite a bit of other volunteer work. I admit that there have been times when I agreed to do volunteer work more as a favor to someone than because it spoke to my heart but I learned a lot about myself from those experiences, too.
Four years ago I listened to my heart once again and volunteered to be a dog walker at the local Humane Society. What a great feeling it was to take the dogs out of their kennels and let them enjoy being outside for a while. That’s how I met Stella! After I adopted her I wanted to do volunteer work that would include her and someone told me about a Humane Society program called Ambassador Dogs. Dogs and their owners go to the library twice a month for PAWS to Read (kids read to the dogs) and also visit nursing homes and do Bite-Free education presentations. Stella has a very sweet, calm personality and I knew she would be good with kids and other dogs so we joined the Ambassador Dogs. For more than 3 ½ years we both had a lot of fun but, sadly, we recently had to retire due to Stella’s health issues. One of the things I realized through that experience is that some day I would like to have a certified therapy dog and, because of Stella’s sweet personality and cute little beagle face, I’d like to adopt my next dog from the Beagle Freedom Project, which rescues beagles from research labs. Don’t feel sorry for Stella because she has a great life – a walk every day, lots of treats, and the most important thing, LOVE!
I knew that another volunteer opportunity would present itself in good time and I have learned how to let things come to me – quite a lesson for someone who was always so impatient. Several months ago I had a dream that I was leading a horse through a quiet meadow. I felt peaceful and happy and the dream had a feeling of positive energy that stayed with me all day. I had never dreamed of a horse before and I wondered what the meaning could be but then forgot about it. A few months later I happened to notice a little article in the local paper – I’m surprised I even noticed it – about an equestrian therapy program that was looking for volunteer horse leaders. I felt drawn to it and started to write an email, but then chickened out because I have no experience with horses. One day I suddenly had a light bulb moment and connected the dream from several months ago to the feeling I had when I read the article. I decided that this was a sign I needed to follow so I went to visit Whispering Meadows Ranch. I got a good feeling about the place, the people who operate it, and the work they are doing with disabled children so I volunteered. I’m being trained to lead a horse with a disabled child on board (as part of a 4 person team), and also how to exercise and groom a horse. I love to be around animals and I also get to be part of a program that does wonderful things for disabled children – it’s a real win-win for me.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ~ Ghandi
One of my 2013 Christmas cards – available now in my online shop at Zazzle !