The Importance of Volunteers — National Volunteer Week — April 18-24, 2021
In no particular order of priority because each is as treasured as the next, my take on the most invaluable and therefore most important groups of people to society are:
- Healthcare Professionals (doctors, nurses, EMTs, paramedics, and the like)
- First Responders (firefighters, police)
- Farmers and Ranchers
- Construction Workers
- Truck Drivers
- Military Occupations
There is a single outcome in each of those groups’ job descriptions — making our world a better place. With that single, priceless contribution in mind, I don’t hesitate to add one more group to the shortlist — Volunteers.
I’ve spent 95 percent of my professional life in volunteer organizations, as well as a mighty fair amount of time supporting my wife’s lifelong volunteer efforts tied to her fraternity’s (Zeta Tau Alpha) community-service endeavors. My career path and my life have been incredibly fulfilling for many reasons. Toward the very top of that list are the hundreds of volunteers with whom I’ve had the honor and privilege of working.
Is there a more virtuous pursuit than giving oneself to a cause, to a community, or inspiring and accelerating people-powered, positive change in our world? As President George H.W. Bush, founder of Points of Light, simply yet eloquently put it, “The solution to each problem that confronts us begins with an individual who steps forward and who says, ‘I can help.'”
Thirty-two years of leading two volunteer-governed and volunteer-driven nonprofits taught me many things. First, a volunteer family is the lifeblood of such an organization. Their contributions are priceless, their fellowship beyond special. For the most part, they are smart and passionate, fun and tireless, giving and successful. And they know that their actions have the potential to make a massive difference in their local community and to their cause — now and in the future — by helping educate, enlighten and empower others to step up and learn the incredible value of giving back. Their acts of service and donations can and often do make the whole difference.
I’ve yet to encounter the volunteer who cashed a paycheck. And for the most part, they’re not in it for the payback, either. There are unquestionably many benefits that accrue to volunteers — e.g., learning new skills (social and tangible), making new friends, expanding one’s network, strengthening ties to the community, ratcheting up self-confidence and self-esteem, gaining career experience, learning teamwork and leadership skills. Moreover, according to in-depth research summarized in a July 2020 article in the Washington Post, the altruistic act of volunteering is “intrinsically rewarding .” It provides a positive boost to one’s wellness.
Giving Back To Make A Difference
All that aside, volunteering, purely and simply, is about giving back to make a difference. One of the best summaries of its fundamental value lies within The Creed of Zeta Tau Alpha, which includes the beautifully stated intention ” … thus strengthening in us the higher qualities of the spirit; to prepare for service and learn the nobility of serving.”
I truly loved the volunteers with whom I worked. As I sat to pen this piece in recognition of National Volunteer Week (April 18-24, 2021), experiences with these angels on earth washed over me again, tugging at the heartstrings of my soul as I reached back and recalled different segments of my career. So many memories of … giving. By so many good people. One of the true blessings and rewards in my life has been associating with these inspiring individuals, and I wish I could thank each of them again. I’m joyful that many remain a part of my life.
Forever in my heart will be the volunteer who, meeting after meeting, year after year, came early and set up the room, organizing chairs and tables. That was his contribution. And though sometimes he stayed for the program, more often than not, he slipped out the door as others were arriving. Or the volunteers who came out once a year, every year, at 5 am to set up the breast cancer booth and then stayed to pass out items, thanks, and love to survivors and families of those who lost the battle. Or the volunteers who manned gifts shops, gave educational programs, conducted tours, built houses for Habitat for Humanity, dropped everything to go to disaster sites representing the Red Cross, organized car washes, delivered meals and gifts to patients at local hospitals, sent cards to soldiers serving overseas, organized community blood drives and collections for Toys for Tots, helped register people to vote, coached a youth sports team, organized a summer reading program to encourage kids to read, helped seniors in soooo many fundamental ways, cleaned up a local park, a beach or a vacant lot, set up a database or a website … and certainly those who served unselfishly and generously (with oodles of time, talent and treasure) on too many leadership Boards and committees to recall.
Random acts of kindness can take many forms. As Charles Dickens noted, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
Volunteering Is More Important Now Than Ever
The significance of volunteering has perhaps never been more important since the world spiraled into this hot Covid mess in March 2020. Even as we come out of it, the pain of isolation, lockdowns, and social and economic stresses will not be things that soon leave our consciousness. More than ever, the world needs warm, trustworthy, helping hands.
There are thousands of volunteer opportunities waiting for the right volunteer to step up. Look to your community, to your passions, to your talents, to something that tugs your heartstrings. To your neighbors. Turn that desire to give back into action, virtually or in person. Start your give-back clock and encourage others to do so, too — especially family members and extra-especially your young children. Embed in your young ones now the importance of giving back.
What’s needed to get started? To me, only three things: 1) a passion for a cause, which will help you stay motivated; 2) a positive attitude; and 3) a recognition that whatever is needed might well not include earth-shaking actions — only your heart, your mind, and your time. If my time in the volunteer community has taught me anything, there is no “small” contribution by a volunteer.
Not sure where to start? Do a bit of research to see what projects you can do in your community. Google “volunteer opportunities near me” and see if something ignites a passion or matches a talent that you so clearly possess. Or start your own volunteer effort.
Addendum from LSomerbyCooke:
I would be remiss, indeed, if I didn’t give a grateful shoutout to the women of Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA) for molding me every bit as much as the fraternity influences young women and creates an enviable, lifetime sisterhood. I am the man that I am today in large part because of lessons observed and learned from relationships with alumnae and collegians … and of course, especially from my wonderful wife, Debbie. In short, LSomerbyCooke is so incredibly proud to be a ZTA husband these past 40+ years.