by Mary Kennedy
Volunteering is one of those activities that pays back big dividends. When you serve up a hot meal at a soup kitchen, bake a cake to raise money for your child's school, or process adoption papers at the local SPCA, you help yourself. Did you know that people who volunteer--whether it's through a church group, a civic association or a favorite charity--are happier, healthier, and have lower rates of depression than people who don't volunteer?
Older adults are particularly generous with their time and talents. Last year, more than 20 million older adults contributed more than 3 billion hours of service in their communities.
Volunteering can take many forms. For six years, I was a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate) for children who are under the jurisdiction of Family Court. In some states, CASAs are called "guardians ad litem." We are sworn in as officers of the court. The work is rigorous (I spent between 10 and 15 hours a week advocating for the children assigned to me.)
I did loads of "collateral" interviews, meaning I spoke with every adult who influenced their life, their foster family, their biological parents, their pastor, their grade school teacher, their day care provider, their relatives, their social workers, etc. I handled "crisis situations" occasionally when a disruption occurred in the child's care and the child ended up in a residential treatment facility. As a CASA, I was the one constant in the child's life, and I spent hours getting to know the children, interacting with them, learning their deepest fears, wishes and secrets.
If you would like to volunteer to be a CASA, just call Family Court in your area and they will connect you with the CASA coordinator. It can be grueling and emotionally draining but it is also very rewarding work. A CASA stays with the case until it's resolved, no matter how many years it takes.
Most of you know that I'm a big-time animal lover and over the years, I've volunteered at a variety of animal shelters. If you'd like to help animals, but think helping out in a shelter might be too emotionally upsetting, you don't have to be "hands-on." I've written press releases, managed mailing lists, launched fund-raising appeals and answered phones. Animal shelters everywhere are desperate for help and they always need people to follow up on phone calls and do office work.
One of my favorite shelters is the Wayne County Humane Society in Lyons, New York and all the proceeds (100%) from my Dream Guide go to them. I wrote the Dream Guide to accompany my Penguin Dream Club Mysteries. It's 99 cents as an e-book. Okay, an e-pamphlet, it's only 17 pages.
Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of volunteering.
Be sure to choose an activity that you can devote your time to--think of your schedule and make sure the volunteer work is a good match. Usually, organizations will be thrilled to have you and will work around your other obligations.
Find a volunteer buddy. You know how it's easier to get to the gym if your friend is waiting there for you? It also helps to have a friend choose the same volunteer activity you do. Make it easy for your friends to volunteer, offer to pick them up, suggest stopping for coffee or lunch. Make it a fun, rewarding experience and they will want to be part of it.
Don't be afraid to spread the word to your friends and family. I've found that most people really do want to help, they just don't know how to get started. And they don't know about the opportunities out there. My local paper publishes a weekly "volunteer" section and lists all the charities in the region--everything from literacy efforts to shelters for abused women--and describes what they need.
Like anything in life, it's best to find your passion. If you love kids, you might want to get involved with a library program, reading to children. If you like cooking and feel gratified when people enjoy a good meal, you can spend a morning a week at a soup kitchen. If you love horses, you can volunteer at an equestrian camp. The possibilities are endless!
Make 2015 the year you volunteer, I guarantee you will be happier and healthier because of it. And if you're already volunteering, I applaud you!! Keep up the good work. The world is a better place because of you.