We, as people, have historically asked the “big” questions. What is the meaning of life? How did we all get here? How can I give back to my community in meaningful ways? While many of our questions seemingly will never be answered, I can tell you with full confidence that there is a solid answer for question number three: volunteer work. Yes, it is as simple as that. Finding a few hours to do work in the community can have an immense impact all-around. Whether you are fifteen or fifty, you can donate your time to uplift everyone in your neighborhood! Now, these benefits of volunteering which I speak of, what are they?
One of the most apparent benefits of volunteering is that it gives an opportunity to harness and develop skills, both professional and personal. This is most often cited to encourage high school and college students to donate more of their time to volunteering, and with great reason. Many volunteer opportunities involve working with others, giving you a perfect environment to socialize and refine your “soft skills." Improving social skills also leads to building stronger relationships, developing leadership qualities, and becoming a more efficient problem solver, which are all highly desired skills in the workforce. Besides soft skills, many volunteer opportunities can have you handling money and making transactions, working with certain programs or industry-specific tools, and more generally, learning key skills required by many jobs. Volunteering can be a great platform for young people with little to no work experience to learn hands-on in job-like environments, as well as giving professionals the chance to expand their skillset and sharpen their own tools.
Volunteer experiences can do much more than develop skills or give you something to help fill out a resume. Studies have shown that volunteering has positive social and mental effects. When someone volunteers in their local community, they are able to do work that directly influences their community, their neighbors, as well as themselves. Doing work that inherently improves where people live directly provides benefit to all residents of that area. Whether this be through organizing drives, providing physical work for community construction efforts, leading fundraisers for charities and organizations, teaching, or coaching, you can create a better place to live for the whole. In fact, it has been shown that an active force of volunteers can actually make a community safer by reducing crime rates. This is done either through direct volunteer efforts to improve safety, or through the increase in volunteering itself. When more people are volunteering, more people are feeling a sense of fulfillment and purpose, more people are occupying their time productively, and more people simply have an increased level of care for their city and the people in it. Further, teens who volunteer are shown to be 50% less likely to engage in risky or criminal behavior. Community service exposes volunteers to a diverse set of people from all walks of life. These people share their stories and form bonds with volunteers, in turn creating a stronger community as a whole. On a more intrinsic level, engaging in the community can be beneficial for the volunteer. In addition to the benefits of fulfillment and skill development, people can choose to give their time to causes they care about and have real passion for. Animal shelters, youth groups, food pantries, so on and so forth, give those whose professional positions do not satisfy their personal desires to give back an environment to do just that.
It is certainly clear why it’s important for young people to volunteer, but one final reason it should be championed in our society is that community service is an investment in our future. The demographic breakdown of volunteers shows that people aged 35 to 44 and 45 to 54 were 28.9% and 28% likely to volunteer, respectively. By contrast, the 20-24 range was only 18.4%, the lowest of any group. What this says is in the long run, most of the volunteer force we have seen in recent years will dissipate and there will be a shortage that can severely hurt non-profits, community events, and local agencies. Research has concluded that getting teens involved in the community can foster lifelong engagement and encourage philanthropy as they get older. Presenting high school and college aged people with the possibility to impact the places they call home engrains the desire to give back in them. It is vitally important that we can get more of our youth, our future leaders of our society, involved as soon as possible in as many ways as possible. Yes, they can benefit from the learning of skills, and there is a great deal of character building that comes along with volunteering. But, ultimately, we will all benefit from their good work, and that is the message we need to be sending.
At United Way of Southeastern Connecticut, we have a saying: “Live United.” It holds a lot of depth, but at its core, it means “Embrace your neighbors, love your community, and act according to these values.” Volunteering is the best example of how you can embody this simple motto. We invite you to ask yourself what you can do for your town, to act upon your drive to spread positivity through your work, and most importantly, to Live United.