WORDS OF WISDOM: Why I Volunteer


by Neal Lemery

“Putting years of experience to work in our community on behalf of the arts brings excitement and joy. We take on unimagined projects that engage us intellectually, physically and socially. In addition to a sense of purpose, we find connection and friendship.” – Mary Corey, President, Hoffman Center, Manzanita, Oregon

One of the organizations where I volunteer has a computerized volunteer reporting system, and I track my volunteer hours and mileage. As tax time approaches, it provides me with some interesting numbers. At the most, I think I only spend a couple of hours a week doing small tasks, but it adds up. The numbers go up as I realize I also volunteer in other ways, though I’m definitely a poor record keeper.
Then, I mentally multiply that number by the approximately one hundred other volunteers in our organization. And that’s just one organization in one rural county. There are 1.8 million nonprofits in the USA, and over 65 million Americans volunteer. The number of hours and the value would be truly impressive; my calculator is not up to the task.

Volunteer work has value. The US Government calculates the hourly “rate” of volunteer value at $27.20/hour. All that volunteer work really is value added to our economy, and our work provides service to the general public and to the operations of virtually every organization in the country.
Most volunteers don’t lend a hand as a way of improving the economy. So why do we volunteer?
For me, there is both a sense of purpose and a sense of obligation. For my entire life, I have benefited from the community, with countless organizations involved in my life and providing me almost every service and opportunity to improve myself that I can imagine. I’ve received a publicly funded education through high school, at very little cost to my family. I’ve enjoyed the services of public libraries, police and fire services, transportation, communication, public health facilities and services, and the myriad other governmental and non-profit services and materials I have taken advantage of in my life.
Yes, we’ve all contributed to those good works by paying taxes, and making some monetary donations, as well as paying many services out of pocket. Yet, I certainly haven’t “balanced the books” by paying the full value for what I have received.
Now that I’m retired, I have more time to return to the community what I have received in my life, a form of “payback”. It is time to balance the books and to be generous with my time and abilities, and make my community a better place. “Pay it forward” is a good motto to help guide our lives.
Volunteering and giving back is part of what citizenship requires of us. Each of us is part of the whole. If we are able, we give back, making our community just a little better. The work can be as simple as expressing a kind word, or lending a hand to someone in need, or offering some comfort and support. Volunteering also means helping out when a group is taking on a task, performing some small task, and lightening someone else’s burden as we come together for an event.
Volunteering really has a very wide-ranging definition, and includes small acts of kindness. Some tasks take less than a minute, and, over time, add up to our larger commitments to the common good. The work of the good neighbor, or a compassionate friend are all part of doing the work of the volunteer.
I also meet some nice people who are like-minded, giving and kind. They are good influences on me, and I am able to learn about their lives, and their charitable, good-hearted thinking. Being around them, and doing satisfying tasks gives me purpose. I feel productive. And, I often gain new friends and am surrounded by happy, smiling people. I feel I am part of the community and have a valuable role in bettering my community. Helping others also helps me.
Yet another benefit is learning more of what goes on in our community, how vibrant our institutions are, what services are available, and, most importantly, the wealth of talent and intelligence of my fellow citizens. I become much more aware of the struggles of others and what are our community’s unfilled needs. Volunteering brings out the best in all of us.
During the Pandemic, we can continue to be good volunteers. Virtual gatherings and classes have been satisfying and informative. I write notes and letters to those I’m not able to safely visit. One of my friends is a talented poet, so we swap poems and other writings, and act as editors and supporters for our creative efforts. I post photos of nature and fun activities on social media, and try to keep my other postings upbeat. When I see a funny joke or an inspiring quote, I’ll repost those, too. I also like to send a colorful and cheerful card, knowing there will be a smile at someone’s mailbox.
At the grocery store or post office, I’ll make it a point to say hello and have a pleasant and uplifting conversation. And, if someone needs a little help, I’ll make the effort. A few pleasant words and a cheerful hello and nod behind my mask takes little effort, but can brighten someone’s day.
All of these tasks really take very little time and effort. Doing something for someone else makes for a brighter world. I’m often reminded of the saying that you get back ten times what you give. Lives have been improved, and I have been a small part of a bigger effort. And who knows how many others’ lives will be uplifted, even in small ways.
When I help out, when I do something nice for someone, a smile shows up on my face and life seems brighter. That’s a really nice paycheck to receive at the end of the day, more than the $27.20 an hour that the government says it is worth.

Neal Lemery – community volunteer, author and blogger neallemery.com
Books: NEW book – Building Community: Rural Voices for Hope and Change; Finding My Muse on Main Street, Homegrown Tomatoes, and Mentoring Boys to Men