Monday, April 9, 2012

April is National Volunteer Month: A perfect time for all of us to get out and be great by serving our community.

“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

At United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, we focus on the building blocks of a quality life: education, income and health. With regard to volunteerism, the connection seems pretty clear. Higher education leads to a steady income and financial stability which often leads to higher volunteer rates. Volunteering has a variety of benefits, not just for the community at large, but for the individual as well. Specifically, volunteering leads to greater mental and physical health by increasing social skills, providing a connection to community and giving a sense of purpose.

I’m glad there is a month dedicated to encouraging and inspiring people to volunteer. I need the reminder myself. While I recognize and understand the importance of volunteering on a cognitive level, sometimes I need not only the push to action, but also the pause to reflect on what volunteering means to me.

According to a report released earlier this year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Volunteering in the United States 2010), I fit fairly neatly into the categories deemed to volunteer the most. I’m female. I’m employed and receive a Community Service Benefit from my employer. I’m 41. I’ve been fortunate to receive a college education. I’m white, unless I choose to volunteer my Mexican and Native American roots. I’m healthy and able-bodied. According to my demographics, I should be a volunteer extraordinaire!

Despite the many privileges above, I have to say, I don’t volunteer as often as I could. Because of my vantage point, it’s easy for me to find rationalizations for why I haven’t volunteered as much as I’d like. I work for a non-profit, so I’m making a contribution to the common good every day. I make other charitable contributions. I’m too busy with other hobbies, activities, family and friends. I haven’t found the right organization yet. You get the idea.

In the process of categorizing myself as a person with few barriers to volunteering, I quickly realized I could just as easily be viewed as selfish, uncaring, lazy and disinterested. I know in my heart these things aren’t true. Yet, how often do I view myself in these terms? I feel like I could do more. The privilege I have reinforces the idea that my contributions are needed and welcome. 

What if I was struggling to get my GED? What if I was unemployed? What if I was in poor health? Would I still feel like my contributions are welcome? How would I fit into this structured idea of volunteerism? Would the service I provide to my family, my neighbors or my church be given as much weight in the eyes of others? How often is non-participation viewed as apathy, especially for less privileged groups?

The community benefits of formal volunteering are undeniable. When people grab hold of hands, come together and volunteer, great things are accomplished in short order. We learn about ourselves and others. In this spirit, I suggest broadening the conversation so we truly recognize the service of all people. 

At the core, volunteerism is an organized way for us to show empathy for one another and experience our interdependence. In reality, we all give of ourselves every day with every interaction, although we probably don’t view it as volunteering. 

So, not only will I use National Volunteer Month as a spark to rekindle my volunteer fire, I’ll also start being more aware of the informal acts of volunteerism too. Introducing myself to more of my neighbors? Why not! Holding the door for someone? You betcha! Picking up the fast food litter outside my apartment? Bring it on!

Join me in volunteering this month and throughout the year. Learn more about volunteer opportunities by visiting United Way of the Columbia-Willamette’s website at

“Do something wonderful, people may imitate it.” - Albert Schweitzer

Michelle House
Member, United Way Internal Diversity & Inclusion Team

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