The Volunteering Experience

Whether it’s at a hospital, shelter or even your local school, there are hundreds of ways you can volunteer and get involved.

Not sure how to start? Here are a few short examples of how three different people decided to get involved and give back:

Give Time

Volunteer as a Firefighter

Steve Cohen, an attorney and litigator in New York, got involved with his local fire department after they stopped by his neighborhood block party.

“I got involved because my fire department has a junior program and my son was 14 at the time and I thought it’d be something worthwhile for him to be involved in,” says Cohen. “I said to him ‘If you do it, I’ll do it.”

Now his whole family plays a part – both his daughter and son are junior program members and his wife is an EMT.

Volunteer with the Red Cross

Rebecca Thomley wanted to extend her professional training to the community level so she joined the Red Cross as a volunteer trauma psychologist.

“As a psychologist, there’s an understanding that you will do more to contribute to the general good but I also grew up in a family with a volunteering grew up with my mom as a social worker and seeing what she did, so it was a natural fit.”

Support Cancer Patients

Joana deBelkadi who, despite battling and overcoming cancer herself, spends most of her time acting as a bereavement counselor and providing emotional support to about eight families with children battling cancer via an online social networking tool and service called CarePages.

"I’m a bereavement counselor at Children’s Hospice, and CarePages is another way I can give back,” says Joana. “I’m always getting messages saying, ‘Could you visit this site? This person needs help.”

Top Tips for Volunteers from Volunteers

We asked Steve, Rebecca and Joana to share their top tips of how you can get involved and make the most out of your volunteering experience:

  1. Do a self-assessment.
    Make a list of your interests and consider your time and day availability.

    “It’s important if your going to volunteer that you do an assessment as to why you’re volunteering and why you’re choosing to volunteer, what you’re trying to get from the experience,” says Rebecca Thomley, volunteer trauma psychologist for the American Red Cross.

    “You have to be careful if you’re going to volunteer with children for example, for instance if you’re struggling with your teenage children it’s probably not a good idea to help with runaways.”

  2. Check your commitment level.
    Think of how long you’ll want this commitment to last – a few weeks, months, years? Start out small and then increase your time if you’re worried about over-committing.

    “It’s a commitment of time but it’s not as much as I thought it would be,” says Steve Cohen, a New York state attorney and volunteer firefighter with the Jericho, N.Y. Fire Department.

    “I was able to meet the percentage requirements without really feeling like I was doing too much. Don’t assume that you can’t fit it in your schedule because the payoffs are definitely worth it.”

  3. Do your research.
    Read a lot about the opportunity and the environment beforehand and ask questions.

    “Take time to learn about the situation you’re going into, whether it be the culture, or self-care,” says Thomley.

    If you’re headed to a disaster area, “you’ll need to research what kind of clothing you’re going to wear because you need to take care of yourself too. Don’t put an extra burden on the system by not planning ahead.”

  4. It’s not all drama and big adventures.
    “I think that what has happened is that volunteering is now pictured in the disaster or Hurricane Katrina but actually a lot of volunteering is mopping up a basement or pushing paper,” says Thomley.

    “It’s normal for all of us to be attracted to the drama of the position.” Just as cleanup or onsite help is important, the clerical work can be just as vital.

    “Many, many times volunteering is doing the little things that keep organizations afloat. They are so, so needed,” says Joana deBelkadi, a two-time cancer survivor and bereavement counselor with CarePages.

    “The agency I worked for would not be afloat if we didn’t have volunteers. It’s just indescribably helpful.”

  5. Do what you can.
    “Don’t take on more than you can really do,” says Joana. “Some people do it with such heart that they can sometimes take on too much and it ends up being spread too thin.”

    If you’re physically, mentally or emotionally spent, be sure to tell the volunteer coordinator.

  6. A little means a lot.
    “The other part of being a volunteering is that it’s a gift to the person that you’re helping and to share in what they’re experiencing,” says Thomley.

    “And sometimes the greatest act of kindness you can do is to be present. Sometimes just being next to them as they experience the loss is the great thing you can do.”

  7. Give it a try!
    “I was nervous but the [firefighters] told me ‘There’s nothing to lose? Why don’t you just try it?” says Cohen. “There’s nothing to lose by trying it and I could always resign.”

    If you’re thinking your current position isn’t ideal, mention this to the volunteer coordinator. Sometimes you might just need to wait for a better opportunity or more commitment time spent in the organization.

Want more? Read these related volunteering articles on WhatHappensNow.com: