The value of volunteer service cannot be overstated. It may be simply donating blood or serving meals at the homeless shelter on Thanksgiving day. On a wider scale, participating on the board of a nonprofit organization may help shape that group’s initiatives or result in significant fundraising that benefits many others.
Over the years, I have served in all these capacities. Whether producing publications or simply getting a smile out of someone who needed it, those time commitments have always found a place in my schedule amidst school, work, or family. Yes, a busy life, but there can be a payoff.
If you are not engaged in some volunteer work, I propose reconsidering its value in your life. I was about 29 years old when I started a more significant commitment to volunteerism. My wise hindsight wishes I had started earlier.
I recall President George Bush visiting Washington University in St. Louis, my alma mater, in 1989 to speak to a select assembly of students. His topic: volunteerism and service.
“From now on, in America any definition of a successful life must include serving others – in a child care center, the corporate boardroom, in the Rotary or Little League or a tutoring program or a church or a synagogue,” said Bush on that day.
At that time, I thought little of it. My focus was on taking presidential photographs for publication in Sigma Chi fraternity’s national magazine, or perhaps I was thinking of Saturday night. For certain, volunteerism did not resonate with me until years later.
Volunteerism has more than one face worth considering. One is humanely obvious – helping those less fortunate, or organizations that better our communities. Some may find they already have this innate inclination to serve and I applaud and encourage them to continue.
In 1998, I was drawn to a cause that forever changed my perspective and proved valuable later in my own career. In November that year, Hurricane Mitch ravaged Honduras, Nicaragua, and much of Central America with a fury that killed thousands and left many more injured. It was the second most deadly hurricane in history.
Homes, roads and bridges had been swept away, power and communication lines severed, and millions were without food or shelter. I recall the horrible news and photos of bodies strewn in mud-soaked fields, having succumbed to nature’s wrath without warning.
In the immediate aftermath, I was on a plane to Managua sitting next to correspondents from various major world media outlets. They had been sent to first report on the damage.
I served on the board of directors for Mission de Los Ninos (MLN), a non-profit organization based in St. Louis, Missouri, helping to design and raise funds to build a school, convent and health clinic for the impoverished town of Tipitapa, Nicaragua. Our client, the Carmelite Sisters, sought to develop the site with a new 17,000 square foot facility.
During our Dallas/Fort Worth layover en route to Managua, we arranged a rental car for an hour. At the nearest grocer, we filled two carts with large bags of rice and beans, powdered milk, baking staples, gallon jugs of water and batteries, and bought two large duffle bags to transport it all.
Despite exceeding baggage quantity and weight limits, the airline agent let it aboard. The car rental company never charged for the car. In that moment, this was their service. These supplies were well received by the Carmelite Sisters, who ran a school and fed many of the local children from a poor section of Managua.
A chaotic Managua greeted us abound with military trucks and emergency vehicles, heavily armed police, rescue helicopters and lots of media. Many parts of Managua were flooded. Near our building site, the Pan American Highway was cut in two by a rushing River Tipitapa, an historic water connector between Lakes Nicaragua and Managua. Similar interruptions were reported in other departments of the country.
The MLN mission went forward through Mitch’s aftermath; we carried out a field survey of the building site, met with key supporters such as Cardinal Miguel Obando, the archbishop of Managua, and other key government directors to support the cause.
Upon return to St. Louis, news media outlets wanted our story. The efforts connected us with significant donors. Some, who had seen our “day job” talents, became future clients to the design-build company where I worked. My graphic design and copy writing ability was put to use for a retail catalog company that imported furnishings from Central America, from which my career benefitted for years.
My volunteerism has continued steadfast since 1998, as service on boards opened doors to serve others and become introduced to new circles of people and initiatives. Not everyone will find their experience to have such dramatic circumstance, but the self-actualization that comes with volunteerism is often overlooked by students.
Volunteerism not only earns life experience, it builds leadership ability and personal networks, adds to the resume, and describes one’s character without the use of words. Graduate school admission officers consider volunteerism favorably. Corporate human resource personnel reviewing job applications consider it favorably.
Don’t wait to engage. Find a local non-profit, or a SLCC club (they often have community service projects), or serve on the SLCC student government. Reach out now to benefit others and perhaps, ultimately, yourself.