By Sandy Wiegand, Copyeditor and Writer at Joining Vision and Action

It’s National Volunteer Week, a time to celebrate volunteers and their ability to tackle tough challenges and bolster communities, to paraphrase Points of Light. Recently, I wrote a blog about my own desire to increase my community engagement. I shared what studies and statistics say about who volunteers, what they get out of it and what experts say about choosing where to volunteer. This time, I’m seeking inspiration from the people on the ground.

Many of my JVA colleagues are dedicated volunteers. They serve on boards. They fundraise. They never talk about their experiences in terms of what they—or I— “should” do. I don’t feel like I’m being told to eat my veggies. If you haven’t volunteered much, it can still be a challenge to leave that mindset behind, though. So I thought I’d ask them to elaborate on their experiences.   

I asked three basic questions: What do you get out of volunteering? How did you find a role and an organization that’s a good fit? And how do you stay motivated and make the experience feel rewarding? My co-workers responded enthusiastically, so this will be a two-part blog. Today, we’ll focus on the first question.

What do you get out of volunteering?

  • It makes you feel connected to your community.

    • For Katherine, it instills a “sense of belonging, or ownership in my community. If I’ve volunteered at a park cleanup, for example, I feel invested in keeping that space clean.”
    • Adam, who is co-chair of the Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council, notes that Denver is his hometown, so impacting food security and urban agriculture here feels especially good, like he’s helping out his neighbors.
    • When Katalin moved to Golden not long ago, she volunteered on the PTA and with the Seniors’ Resource Center as a way of learning about her new community. And today, she’s vice chair of the City of Golden Public Art Commission, helping to shape that community’s identity.
    • Rolfe consistently sits on two to three boards of directors and gives considerable time to his church. He says these contributions bring him “joy in being part of a community … joy in helping an organization do the good work that it does in the world.”
  • It’s a chance to “give back” if you feel a personal connection with a particular cause.

    • Nora volunteers with Kids Aid, The Backpack Program, which provides food for students to take home for the weekend. “As the daughter of a teacher, I know the impact hunger has on your ability to learn,” she says. “So I can appreciate where these kids and families are coming from and want to support them during their time of challenge.”
    • Erin has volunteered for years with her children’s school, including helping out in the classroom and helping launch and maintain a community garden. “As a daughter of two teachers, I definitely appreciate the efforts of teachers every day,” she says. She also helps out with fundraising, such as silent auctions, because “schools need money.” In the past, she helped organize a community service day for students, a great way to teach children to give back.

“If my sink stops working, I call my parents and they help me figure out how to fix it or who to call next. Foster alumni don’t always have those people. I can be that person. I want to be that person for someone.”

  • It connects you with new people, ideas and experiences.

    • At Seniors’ Resource Center, Katalin supported an art program for people with Alzheimer’s disease. It was “a very different kind of community than I was normally communicating with,” Kat says. Dealing with a family member with dementia “wasn’t even on my radar at the time.”
    • Sarah’s work on the board of Children’s Future International, takes her to Cambodia every year or two, where she works with Cambodian staff, providing support in planning, policies and more. She also has also volunteered as a mentor to newly arrived refugee families in Denver, through Lutheran Family Services, for a family from Burma and a family from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
    • And Nora, who also volunteers at Foster Alumni Mentors, notes that “even though I usually have some sort of connection to/interest in the organization I’m supporting, I often learn new things, meet new people, spark new ideas or interests.”
  • It helps you stay current on what’s happening in a movement you care about.

    • Adam, who is co-chair of the Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council, notes that volunteering is “a great way to stay connected with the latest and greatest activities in the food movement.”
  • It gives you perspective on the big picture/what’s important.

    • “Volunteer work helps me get out of the routine of my own life and daily experiences and be part of something larger than myself,” Erin explains.
    • “It helps keep me grounded,” says Katalin, who has served on the PTA board of her children’s school and is now on the board of the Golden Schools Foundation, supporting the city’s articulation schools. “You learn that not everybody at the school can afford to go on a field trip… or this kid showed up to school without warm enough clothes or one kid was supposed to have medication and his parents couldn’t pay for it… It introduces you to stuff that you wouldn’t know if you just stay in your bubble.”
  • It helps you realize that one person really can make a difference.

    • “I feel valued—even loved—when my volunteering is appreciated and when I feel I’m making a difference,” Rolfe says.
    • Regarding her work with refugees, Sarah comments: “This is probably the most impactful volunteer work I’ve done, because these families don’t have many people to help them adapt to life in the U.S.—everything from learning how to ride the bus, go grocery shopping, enrolling kids in school, helping them with their English, taking them to doctor’s appointments…”
    • Nora says it reminds her of what she has that others may lack: “I remember working with foster alumni and was reminded often of the relationship resources I have that they often don’t.”

In part 2, we’ll find out my colleagues’ perspectives on how to find a volunteering role and an organization that are a good fit, and how to stay motivated and get the most out of a volunteering gig.