Volunteering is an opportunity to change lives, including your own. If you're feeling frustrated or overwhelmed by the news of a disaster, volunteering to help can be a great way to cope. If you'd like to support a cause but can't afford to donate money, you can donate your time instead.
Helping others in need is such an important part of the American way of life that many high schools require their students to spend a certain number of hours volunteering in order to graduate.
So how do you go about it?
Unlike school, with volunteering you get to pick what really interests you and who (or what) is most deserving of your time. Need some ideas to get you started? Here are just a few:
Help kids learn and grow. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister, camp counselor, or volunteer for an after-school sports program. Special Olympics games and events are great ways to get to know special-needs kids.
Give back over the holidays. Serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless, volunteer at your local food bank, or distribute toys to kids. Your church, temple, mosque, or other place of worship also may be able to use your help.
Play with pets at a local animal shelter. Most shelters depend on volunteers to keep the cats and dogs happy and well exercised. (And when you're walking rescued dogs, you get a workout too.)
Volunteer for a political campaign. If you're interested in politics, it's a great way to find out how things work on the inside. Even if you can't vote, you can still work to get your candidate elected — whether it's the president of the United States or your town mayor.
Help the environment. Join a conservation group and help out with river preservation. Take part in a local park cleanup day. You don't have to be an outdoorsy type — if you can't picture yourself hauling trees up a hill, you could help out in a park office or education center.
Support a health-related cause. Lots of us are close to people who have a medical problem (like cancer, HIV, or diabetes, for example). It can feel good to donate your time to an organization that raises money for research, delivers meals, or offers other help to people with an illness.
If you have more than one thing you love, find a way to combine the two. For example, if you love kids and are great at arts and crafts, visit your local children's hospital and offer to lead art activities for young patients.
Once you've found something that inspires you, decide how much time you want to spend. Local organizations (like hospitals or shelters) often like volunteers to give them a set amount of time every week or two.
But what if school, sports, or other commitments prevent you from devoting time every week? Many large organizations (especially those related to the environment or finding cures for diseases) have day-long activities. These include walkathons, bike rides, cleanup days, or building homes for those in need.
You can also spend a week, month, or even a whole summer volunteering through a structured internship or "alternative spring break" program. The advantage of these is you get to immerse yourself in the activities and feel a real sense of achievement when you see the results. Because you spend a lot of time together, most people who work on long-term volunteer projects form close friendships. Sometimes you get to travel, and the organization may pay your travel and living costs.
Volunteering is a great way to learn new skills — from working as part of a team to setting and reaching goals. It gives you a chance to discover what kinds of things you're best at and enjoy the most. A volunteer job that you love can even help shape your ideas about your career goals.
Volunteering also can give you a sense of responsibility because people really depend on you. And it can help you develop a new understanding of people who are different from you — people with disabilities, people in financial distress, sick kids, or the elderly.
Donating your time is a great way to feel like you have the power to change things for the better. When people depend on you, it can change the way you look at yourself. You can feel proud of the goals that you've achieved for an organization — whether it's helping to organize a 10K to raise money for breast cancer or running the race itself.
Volunteering is also a great way to get a perspective on your own life. Sometimes it's easy to get consumed by worries about your grades or the fight you had with your friend or parent. And although these things are very important in their own way, sometimes it can be helpful to get some distance and think about other things. Volunteering allows you to do this. It lets you focus on others and see that your involvement in the world can be meaningful.
Finally, volunteering can help save you from being bored — it gives you a place to be where you can have a good time and keep busy.
When you donate your time to a cause you care about, it looks impressive on college or job applications. That's not the main reason for volunteering, of course — if you do it just to please other people or to look good you may not enjoy it. But volunteering does show others (and yourself!) that you are reliable enough to make a commitment and show up on schedule.
Volunteering also shows employers and colleges that you believe in making the world a better place — and that you're willing to sacrifice your time and energy to do it.
After you've decided what you're interested in and how much time you can devote, it's time to find out where you can volunteer.
You have several choices. You can search the Internet or look in your local phone book under "volunteer." You can call an organization directly and ask if they need volunteers in your area. You can ask friends or relatives for ideas and contacts or look on bulletin boards in your library or in bookstores. It's worth spending the time up front to identify a job that's a good fit for you.
When you're calling an organization to offer your time, it's best to ask for a volunteer coordinator. Be ready to answer some questions, like:
Most places will ask you to come for an interview, which is usually pretty casual. They want to talk to you face to face and if they haven't yet asked the questions above, they will do it at the interview.
Whether your interview is on the phone or in person, don't forget to ask questions of your own. For example:
You might even want to ask if you can observe some other volunteers in action to get a feel for the work before you commit.
If it's a good fit — meaning you like the organization, they like you, and you like the work — volunteering can be an incredible experience.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2014
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