Featured in the December 2018/January 2019 issue of Best Health Magazine
There are days where I sit alone in my office and feel like I am having an existential crisis. Although I trained both as a clinical social worker and journalist, I ended up working as a writer and editor, and miss connecting with people outside of my four walls. At no other time is that feeling more powerful than during the holidays, with its frenzy of gift buying and preoccupation with “things.”
I discovered that a perfect antidote to that sense of disengagement is to volunteer. One Christmas, I helped serve a holiday meal at a short-term residential crisis centre in downtown Toronto. I’ve also volunteered at a local soup kitchen. It’s hard to describe the effect volunteering has on me, but I just feel better.
Little did I know that research findings confirm the health benefits of volunteering. These include everything from reducing stress and depression, to lowering blood pressure and even living longer, says Bill Koch, a clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at University of British Columbia, a clinical and forensic psychologist and a committed volunteer himself.
It’s hard to know exactly how volunteering influences people’s well-being—whether it’s healthier, more active people who tend to volunteer or whether the work itself produces that effect.
My experiences certainly reflect what Paula Speevak, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, refers to when she talks about how volunteering is about a reciprocal relationship. “We have moved away from [patronizing] terms like ‘less fortunate’ and toward more of a concept of mutual aid,” says Speevak. “Everyone has something to give, and the notion of volunteering now has more to do with actively participating or engaging with the community than simply serving people.”
“The primary reason for volunteering is to help others, but volunteering benefits people in all different ways,” she says, from reducing people’s sense of isolation to helping them develop skills and experiences that might be useful for a career to producing health benefits. There’s even the less tangible benefit that Speevak refers to as “this magic moment when you feel like this is what was meant to happen, and I’m a part of it,” she says.
Volunteering, 21st Century Style
Speevak encourages us to challenge our traditional concepts of volunteering. “People have a pretty fixed notion of what it entails — like serving tea in a nursing home,” she says. “But there are different [less formal] ways people can engage in the community.” Participating in neighbourhood events, coordinating a crowdsourcing event to help a disabled neighbour get a van, or using social media to find people to speak out on civic issues all count.
As you will likely discover, volunteering doesn’t just give you that sense of feeling useful. You may find that you are helping yourself in ways that you didn’t ever expect.
No time, no problem
Microvolunteering is a trend that’s grown over the last 10 years to providing “short-time” ways to contribute by working independently on quick projects. These involve completing a single task that doesn’t require training or screening and often has the benefit of your being able to see results quickly.
The Volunteer Canada website lists lots of volunteering ideas under “Engaging Volunteers.” Here are a few.
- Get involved in a flash mob to bring awareness to an issue.
- Sign a petition. Check out change.org to find a cause you want to support.
- Knit, sew or crochet a blanket for Blankets for Canada.
- Jog, hike, walk or dance to raise money for charity. Choose one of more of the 40 charity partners to donate to through Charity Miles. Download their app, and learn how to get started.
- Do odd jobs like gardening, cleaning, or home repairs or tutor someone. Check out Neighbordoo.com, a free platform that matches people who need help with people who can do the work. Although some of this work is paid, you can also volunteer. Although some of this work is paid, you can also volunteer.