The power of volunteering

Dateline Portland, Oregon, Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: Did you know that volunteering has been shown to have protective benefits for our health?

I am very fortunate to have been asked recently to join the board of directors of Cascadia Behavioral Health. As I sat in on my first meeting yesterday evening, I was struck by a number of things. First, CBH is a truly remarkable non-profit. The seeds of the agency have been around since the early 1980’s. Cascadia has a dedicated staff who are providing mission-driven services to men and women in need, people who would fall through the cracks if Cascadia were not there. They do amazing work with those who have severe and persistent mental illness. They provide medical and mental health care, vocational assistance and housing. They reach out to care for those who are incarcerated. They treat substance abuse and gambling addictions. They are forward thinking and self-reflective.

And I was struck by the composition of the board itself. People arrive to the decision to volunteer their time for many reasons, and they choose their volunteer settings for lots of reasons, as well. This board has directors who have served for over 30 years, returning again and again to help guide Cascadia through challenging times and good times, always mindful of the needs of the population Cascadia serves. There are directors who come to the board from other parts of the healthcare community, with integration of care in mind. There are directors who have joined the board for more personal reasons, too. It is an honor to be asked to join such dedicated ranks.

Finally, I’ve been thinking a lot about volunteerism these days—about the ways in which it serves a community, to be sure. But also about the ways it serves the volunteers, themselves. Did you know, for example, that volunteering has protective properties for your health? Here’s a bit of research for you to consider the next time you set out to shelve books in your child’s school library, or serve on the PTA or join your neighborhood association:

Studies show that volunteering helps maintain social engagement, and has beneficial effects on emotional resilience as a result. But the benefits do not stop there: research has demonstrated that volunteers are less likely to develop high blood pressure and more likely to live longer. In a randomized study, Schreier, Schonert-Reich and Chen (2013) looked at adolescents who were assigned to either volunteer or engage in their usual activities. Those who volunteered lost weight and had improved cholesterol profiles when compared to their non-volunteering peers. Older adults demonstrated improved memory and greater stamina, as well as reduced levels of depression—some of which may be attributable to maintaining a sense of purpose and generativity in life ( Okun, Yeung and Brown (2013) found that even when controlling for health variables that may contribute to mortality, volunteering reduced mortality risk of adults by 24%.

Volunteering is an altruistic act. But it comes along with personal benefits, too. Over the years I have served on boards that provide energy assistance to those in economic need, boards that steward forest resources, and boards that steer educational institutions. I have met people I love, and helped people I will never meet as a result. I have always come away feeling I got much more from the experience than I anticipated I would—and suspecting that I got more than I gave!

I have also had the joy of weaving my own child’s educational life into my calendar—teaching Junior Achievement and serving as a room parent in the early days, and drifting into the library when she got old enough that having me in the classroom became acutely embarrassing. I think back on all of those experiences with a kind of peaceful joy—I loved the opportunity to be a part of her school community, even if just for a few hours a month. And even when there was teen-years friction between us, I knew I could look forward to her stopping by the library to touch base and get a quick hug.

So when you think about how you spend your time, consider dedicating yourself, even if only for a few hours a month, to a volunteer gig. You’ll be glad you did.

Okun, M.A., Yeung, E.W., Brown, S. (2013). Volunteering by older adults and risk of mortality: A
     Meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 28(2), 564-577.

Schreier, H.M.C., Schonert-Reichl, K.A., Chen, E. (2013). Effect of volunteering on risk factors for
     cardiovascular disease in adolescents: A randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of the American
Medical Association, Pediatrics, 167(4). 327-332.