In 1966, at age 68, “Miss Lillian” Carter, mother of the future President of the United States, entered the Peace Corps, spending 21 months in a leper colony in India. Possibly the nation’s most famous volunteer, the age-defying Miss Lillian clearly manifested many of the qualities history associates with Americans: courage; curiosity; resilience; resourcefulness; a spirit of hope and generosity.
Whether you’re 8, 18 or 80, and looking to spend a day, a week, a summer or even more in service to others in your community or far away in someone else’s, there are many ways to channel hard work, talent and ideas into rebuilding the world, or a little piece of it. In fact, where personal fulfillment is concerned, many participants report getting more out of volunteering than they give to their chosen cause, sometimes with personal, life-changing stories a byproduct of being in service to others. At the very least, volunteers report the feelings of success, accomplishment, pride, confidence, and satisfaction they experience often spill over into other areas of their lives, seeing them through the challenges of day-to-day living and empowering them to make better choices for themselves and their families.
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 63.4 million Americans volunteered to help their communities in 2009 (statistics for 2010 are not yet available), up by 1.6 million from 2008. Astoundingly, volunteers of all ages performed 8.1 billion hours of community service at an estimated dollar value of $169 billion, despite a lingering economic downturn where they may have lost their own jobs and homes.
“When you volunteer, you have the opportunity to learn about problems in your community, make friends, and learn new skills,” said Sandy Scott, CNCS spokesman, noting these skills can go so far as to open doors to new jobs if you are indeed unemployed. What’s more, statistically, volunteering at least one or two hours each week has led to increased longevity, mobility, and better mental health for participants, many of whom start out with a short commitment and find themselves still volunteering—and recruiting others—years later.
With President Obama calling the current challenges America faces “unprecedented,” the road to volunteering may also be unprecedented in its cornucopia of choices for involvement. According to www.serve.gov—a leading website for finding established, or creating new, volunteer opportunities and a clearinghouse for hundreds of organizations to list these opportunities—the President’s challenge to expand the impact of existing organizations includes engaging new volunteers for them. Promoting “do it yourself” community ventures for people to undertake without organizational structure is also high on the nation’s volunteer agenda.
Opportunities abound for everyone, from younger and older children to college students, young adults, and seniors, whether as individuals or families, to channel their skills, experience and ideas into brightening communities and transforming people’s lives (even their own) in the process. Organizations ranging from animal shelters, municipal gardens, literacy programs, hospices, community and veteran’s centers, food pantries, museums, schools, faith-based entities, all the way to national and global institutions like AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity, the Special Olympics, various disaster-relief organizations, and Miss Lillian’s very own Peace Corps, mandated back in 1961, provide opportunities to get involved. Or, simply identify a need in your community, gather up friends and family, and use available resources to make a difference.
Websites such as www.serve.gov, www.volunteeringinamerica.gov, and www.volunteermatch.org can help navigate the volunteer process and provide global, national and local (state by state) ideas and contacts. Whether you choose to apply your time and skills to an irrigation system in Senegal or a shelter in south Philly, the results can resonate at levels you may never have anticipated, impacting lives–including yours–for years to come.