By Justin Powell, Youthlinc Executive Director
Every year hundreds of Youthlinc volunteers engage locally in supporting the homeless population, people with disabilities, the elderly, refugees, immigrants, youth, etc. and in doing so they realize the power of looking outside of themselves, which in turn helps them find a more solid sense of self and purpose. They see the resilience of others who suffer similarly or differently from them. They see the power of taking time to interact with another and how healing and supportive an act that is. They do this in their own neighborhoods first and then they go abroad and see the same thing in people who seem, at first, so different from them. Service makes us look outside ourselves and our own issues. Service invites us to consider the trials of others and exposes us to the attitudes and inherent value of others.
Service teaches us that we have many things in common as a human race. We all seek to be safe and to have enough food, shelter, and water to develop. We all seek the security of loving relationships with family and friends. Our language, skin color, culture, and religious backgrounds become less important labels to us while kindness, respect, and unconditional love begins to matter more. This is not done through a textbook, a video, or attending a meeting. It happens as we get out of our comfort zones, work side-by-side with others, and connect as humans. It happens as we constantly and consistently serve daily, weekly, monthly.
When we hear about individuals who are in critical need of services we often first think of people experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, chronic disease, or lack of mental health support. Individuals in those situations are often considered “at risk,” especially in the education/youth development world. Many interventions, funding, and awareness are directed at addressing “at-risk” populations.
What does it mean to be “at-risk” according to a school or a community organization? There are all sorts of measures in place to qualify students for extra educational and social services, sometimes becoming complicated and complex to determine.
While working on my Master’s degree I had a professor who kept it simple: “All of us could be considered ‘at-risk’ at any given time. A person could have strong indicators like homelessness or food insecurity or something invisible like depression or anxiety stemming from any given life situation.” I often thought about that concept when I was a teacher, and I still do as the Executive Director of Youthlinc. Anyone could be struggling with noticeable or un-noticeable “at-risk” factors at any time – so treat everyone with generous thought and kindness.
Volunteering helps everyone who engages in it – the volunteer and the people receiving the service. The Mayo Clinic released an article about the benefits of volunteering. Here is a link to their article, but below are some highlights:
Volunteering decreases the risk of depression. Research has shown that volunteering leads to lower rates of depression. Volunteering increases social interaction and helps build a support system based on common interests—both of which have been shown to decrease depression.
Volunteering gives a sense of purpose and teaches valuable skills. Volunteers perform critical roles that support important functions in our communities that directly help our fellow human beings. Being a part of something bigger than ourselves gives us a sense of purpose.
Volunteering may reduce stress levels. According to the Mayo Clinic, volunteering may enhance a person’s social networks to buffer stress and reduce risk of disease. By savoring time spent in service to others, you will feel a sense of meaning and appreciation, both given and received, which can have a stress-reducing effect.
Volunteering helps you meet others and develop new relationships. One of the best ways to make new friends and strengthen existing relationships is to participate in a shared activity together. Volunteering is a great way to meet new people who share common interests with you. Dedicating your time as a volunteer also helps you expand your network and practice social skills with others.
Serving selflessly and among people that are both inside and outside our “bubbles” is the most important activity to engage in as a human being. Imagine what the world would be like if more people approached each other with a generous heart and open mind where kindness is more important than the need to be richer, more prestigious, and more powerful than someone else. I see this happen daily with our volunteers and to each of you I say THANK YOU for making this world a wonderful place.