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Volunteerism: The Journey from 'Life Consumer' to 'Community Contributor'

Photo of author, Teresa Shawver, FPQP™.
Teresa Shawver, FPQP™
Manager of Advisory Service Standards

How to Find Passion, Compassion and Commitment in your Volunteerism Experiences

Did you know 77.4 million Americans volunteered last year and collectively served 6.9 billion hours*?! Just think about that…nearly one-quarter of all Americans took time away from their daily lives and commitments to give back to their communities in some way.

I am humbly gracious for the opportunity to say I was among the nation’s volunteers last year – some of my most gratifying experiences have involved community service. But, it’s a role that didn’t exactly come naturally to me. It’s an interesting story and perhaps one that rings true for many with busy personal and professional lives. In reading my story, I hope to inspire you to take action to serve in a way that is meaningful to you, your organization, and/or your community.

The Spark to Volunteer
Like many of us, my first recollection of charity work goes back to elementary school with events like skate-a-thons and rock-a-thons to raise money for church youth groups or school. I also vividly remember working hard to be a top fundraiser in a capital campaign to build a new public library in my hometown of Sissonville, WV as a third grader. I held bake sales, sold greeting cards, hit up family, friends, and anyone who would pay attention to my fundraising jar and cause. Anything I could think of, I did, and it paid off for both the library and for me — I was crowned “Miss Liberty” for my efforts and had the opportunity to ride on a local parade float. My passion for caring about something much bigger than myself had officially been sparked!

Now fast-forward 40 years when life becomes more complicated with family needs, professional development, and just the day-to-day hectic schedule. Unfortunately, that volunteerism spark had noticeably dimmed in my life. I felt there wasn’t much time for me, let alone for volunteering. I had evolved into a consumer of life versus that community contributor that had brought me so much joy and pride as a child.

I knew I wanted to break through what I considered to be self-imposed roadblocks to volunteerism and make a difference again. But how?

True Meaning Outweighs the Stress of Time
Time is my most coveted asset and, as such, the lack of time was holding me back from volunteering. I would tell myself, “Don’t spread yourself too thin…There’s no way you can take on one more thing.”

I would pass on opportunities to step up. One month after my daughter and I started attending River Ridge Church (Charleston, WV), we participated in a community service event called “Church Has Left the Building,” which involved 40 projects running simultaneously in two counties. My daughter Zoey and I played it safe by agreeing to a simple commitment, and we both loved the experience. Zoey was immediately engaged with helping younger children and continued to volunteer on a monthly basis. I, on the other hand, was feeling the pressure of life’s time constraints, and was reluctant to overcommit. So, each year, I turned down chances to do much more.

But, then I had my “ah-ha” moment when I discovered that the joy of giving back in very meaningful ways far outweighed any doubts or stress over the time commitment. It happened through a personal experience when my father’s sudden illness resulted in a very long rehabilitation road with skilled nursing. His remarkable recovery had such an impact on me that I wanted to pay it forward and share our good blessings with others in that facility. On a leap of faith, I proposed an idea to my Church’s activity director and ultimately led a team of 15 volunteers to the nursing facility where we spent a few hours with residents singing, reading, praying, crafting, playing games, conversing, laughing, and even planting a vegetable garden.

That day will forever be etched in my memory because I had a hand in helping spread joy and love to 30 residents, while at the same time giving back to a facility that meant so much to my dad and my family.

So, what makes being a volunteer rewarding labor of love versus a stressful duty? Passion. Compassion. Commitment. In my opinion, it’s the kind of fulfillment money can’t buy. Of course, I’m not saying monetary donations aren’t important; but to dig in and put your own physical and emotional labor into a charity or cause, takes the experience (and often the impact) to an entirely different level.

Don’t Let Your Comfort Zone Hold You Back
Riding the wave of several wonderful church-related volunteer opportunities, I was ready to branch out this year and decided to sign up as a new member of River Ridge’s “Big Kick Soccer Camp” work crew. I looked forward to helping organizers with this free youth soccer camp. It provided basic soccer skills and Gospel teachings to about 400 children. Despite knowing absolutely NOTHING about soccer, I felt I could help wherever they needed me most: registration, meals, logistics. But when I showed up on Day #1, I was completely surprised to be handed a coach’s packet!

Of course, it would have been easy to politely say, “I’m sorry I know nothing about soccer, may I help in another way?” But instead, I kept an open mind, assumed I was assigned where needed most, and started to look for the growth opportunities, not only for myself but for the little ones I would be coaching.

Thankfully, I did get the youngest age group and, because of the camp director’s incredible leadership, I had everything I needed to fulfill my coaching duties. And, it was one of THE most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had as a volunteer. The mom that used to say, “I just don’t have time,” worked every day in her office and then spent a few hours at the soccer field every evening for one week. There was no stress, only joy. I can’t wait to coach again next year!

Remember: You Are the Difference!
Every day, everywhere, there are similar programs and projects that are possible ONLY because of those who are willing to make the time, to step up and out of their comfort zone, and to be contributors. I’m not suggesting you go out today and sign up for random opportunities just to be able to say that you are contributing. I’m suggesting you intentionally seek opportunities that align with your beliefs, your values, your passions. When you are passionate about the cause, I promise you will find yourself having fun, while making a meaningful difference in the lives of others!

If I’ve inspired you to find your “service spark,” I have achieved my goal in penning this article. If you are so inclined, please share your volunteerism stories with me ( — I would love to hear about them. I won’t share your story without permission; we simply take great interest in knowing how those we care about use their resources to care for others. If we all take our philanthropic efforts to a different level, think about the impact we could have!

Author’s Note: If you are an organization that needs coaching on how to attract and retain quality volunteers, reach out to us. As a firm, McKinley Carter is committed to serving our communities and to recognizing those who make our communities better

*Source: Corporation for National and Community Service

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