Volunteerism, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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Life in the USA
American Community
Community Services

Volunteerism as The American Way
This material courtesy of Terri Elders, LCSW

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

In 1996 actor Cuba Gooding won an Academy Award for playing a football star in the comedy movie “Jerry McGuire.” His signature phrase from that film, “Show me the money,” has become a popular tag line, and serves to reinforce the stereotype of Americans as opportunistic capitalists who are self-serving to the core.

But Americans who have served overseas with Peace Corps report that one of most puzzling concepts for their overseas counterparts to grasp is why they have chosen to volunteer in the first place. Their colleagues ask them if they are simply unable to find work back home, or if they are seeking a spouse. Some puzzle over words such as “altruism” and ideas such as “a call to service.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between September 2001 and September 2002, more than one in four U.S. citizens over the age of 16 had volunteered. This means that nearly 59 million Americans donated their time and talents to organizations without expecting a paycheck.

And time is money. The 2007 estimate of the value of an hour of a volunteer's time to an organization in the United States is $18.77.

Americans always have valued a service ethic, lending one another a helping hand. Over a hundred and fifty years ago, the French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America wrote that such an ethic “prompts Americans to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.”

Volunteerism can be a triple win.

First, the community itself benefits. Volunteers provide homes, clothes or food to those who need them. They beautify neighborhoods, protect wildlife and natural resources, and bring joy to people who are sick or lead isolated lives.

Second, the volunteer serves as a role model. Others, observers and recipients, often become volunteers themselves, multiplying community benefits. Many volunteers say that they are repaying a favor done for them sometime in the past when they needed help, encouragement or inspiration. They speak of their obligation to “pay it forward,” another phrase emerging from a 2000 movie by that name, where a young boy started a chain of random acts of kindness.

Third, the volunteer benefits personally. Volunteers claim to get more out of the experience than what they give. They make news friends, gain new skills that can lead to jobs or careers, learn more about their communities and the world, build their confidence and self-esteem. They feel needed and valued, and believe themselves solid investors in the future.

What's more exciting, a new study indicates that volunteering provides not only the social benefits previously mentioned, but individual health benefits as well. Research shows a strong relationship between volunteering and health. Those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not. This study can be found on the website for The Corporation for National and Community Service, listed below.

So it appears that volunteering makes Americans healthy, wealthy and wise!

Why wait? Get started today:

The Corporation for National and Community Service - This government organization sponsors “Opportunities to Enrich Lives, Improve Communities, and Build a Stronger America.”

VolunteerMatch - This matchmaker has connected over three million good people with good causes.

VolunteerSolutions - This group pairs volunteers with non-profits in many communities.

Volunteer.gov.gov - Lists nationwide volunteer links and special occasions.


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