way of life

How to Give Back

September 16, 2014

People are most likely to feel satisfied and empowered when they know that they have something to give.  Author and activist Bill McKibben writes, “Think about your own life: which moments mattered most? Didn’t most of them entail being involved in something larger than yourself? Either out in the hugeness of the natural world, or working together with those around you for some common end, often for no material gain?”  There are many ways of reaching out, enriching your own life and the lives of other people.  Some are large-scale and formal.  Others are very small and embedded in the everyday moments of your life.

Everyone Can Help

Volunteering isn’t only for well-to-do people with excellent mental and physical help.  Don’t believe that you have nothing to offer.  Think about your skills, about your qualities of character, and about the needs that tug at your heart.  There will be a way to bring these things together.

I once volunteered at an afterschool program. One of my fellow volunteers was an elderly woman with many health issues. She also had an incisive mind and great patience.  She worked one-on-one with a troubled and demanding student. That student had exhausted and resisted with several other volunteers, but he calmed down in her presence.  He didn’t have grandparents to take an interest in what he did, and he craved her attention; he also understood that she had difficulties of her own and needed his consideration, which prompted him to be considerate rather than defiant.

As you volunteer, remember that the people you wish to serve also wish to serve. I know a mentor who worked with a Big Brothers/Big Sisters-type program, spending time with children from a poor and rough neighborhood and helping them fix their bicycles.  The children were glad to have working bikes again, but what they really wanted was to help fix bikes for someone else.

Formal Volunteer Programs

There are many structured service opportunities. Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms (http://wwoofinternational.org/) , Idealist (http://www.idealist.org/)  and Habitat for Humanity (http://www.habitat.org/getinv/volunteer_programs.aspx)  were described in the article on independent learning. Many religious organizations offer a wide range of domestic and international volunteer opportunities; so does the secular organization Service Civil International (http://www.sciint.org/)

When volunteering through any of these programs, communicate as clearly as possible ahead of time; understand what is expected of you and let your project partners know what you are expecting.  This can save a great deal of tension and confusion. Remember, also, that even with clear communication you and your hosts or fellow workers will sometimes have radically different assumptions.  Be prepared to work through that.

Local Outreach

There are many opportunities to be of service in your local community.  Check with your public library about whether they know people who need help learning to read, learn a language or use computers. Ask if your local park could use help with maintaining its grounds or welcoming members of the public.  Inquire at your place of worship about opportunities to help neighbors; people often turn to religious groups in times of unexpected need. Keep asking. Be open to requests for types of help you didn’t initially expect. Be willing to say no when asked to do something that seems unhelpful to you or that really doesn’t suit your own limits and gifts.

Everyday Presence

You can live each day in a way that makes you more available to those who need your help.  If you’re always busy and in a hurry, people are less likely to approach you.  If you listen intently to people without checking your watch or your phone messages, they’re more likely to be open with you.  They may just need a listening ear.  They may need something else which you can provide.

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