By CRISTINA DE LA TORRE
Her mouth formed a smile before she had time to think about what to say. The man in front of her stared down at the tray of biscuits as if he did not want to be noticed. She placed the biscuits onto the man’s white Styrofoam tray and greeted him with a simple hello, hoping to spark a response from him.
The man looked up and his brown eyes shimmered as they made eye contact for the first time. Even though there were bags of tiredness under his eyes, they still lit up with an expression of surprise. She felt a pang in her chest as she considered if this was the first time anyone had greeted him today. She summoned up a smile as he nodded at her and joined the others. Seeing this man’s reaction gave her a sense of hope that her actions could make a difference.
While the act of helping others through volunteering leaves an impact on the community, it also leaves a mark on the volunteer. Not only does it leave you with lasting memories, but volunteering is good for your health, state of mind and career.
A 2013 study conducted by UnitedHealth Group and the Optum Institute revealed that U.S. adults who volunteered felt better both physically and mentally than those who did not volunteer. The study revealed that 76 percent of people who volunteered in the last 12 months said they felt healthier and 94 percent said that it improved their mood.
Khloe Santos, a 24-year-old program manager for Community Living Arrangements in Milwaukee, has been a volunteer for a non-profit organization called The Gathering for four months. This organization serves meals to the homeless in Milwaukee. Her responsibilities include cleaning, assisting in food preparation, serving meals and welcoming guests.
“Since volunteering I have learned that I enjoy helping others as best I can, whether it is by just smiling and saying good morning, or providing that individual with material items,” said Santos. “I believe since volunteering, I have become much more aware of what I am blessed with and how to give back because I am so grateful.”
When people volunteer they increase their overall sense of well-being. This includes lower rates of depression, less incidence of heart disease and greater longevity, according to a report by the Corporation for National and Community Services.
“Giving back by helping an individual can make one feel good about themselves … it allows one to have empathy for those around you,” said Mara Youngbauer, licensed school counselor at Mount Mary University.
These individuals were also able to handle their stress better and feel a closer tie to the community.
“Everything is interconnected so if you are feeling better mentally then you will feel better physically,” said Youngbauer. “If you are managing stress and are overall happier, your mental health is going to affect your physical health.”
The study also revealed that volunteering leads to a better life in the workplace. Those who volunteered felt better, less stressed and more engaged.
According to Youngbauer, this could be because they found a sense of purpose behind their work and have a new sense of thankfulness after seeing what life could be like under different circumstances.
“We look for our volunteers to be open to new things, new approaches and new ways of doing things,” said Sister Kathy Kreie, assistant coordinator at Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services. “We look for someone who wants to be of service, but who is also flexible and understanding of people’s life situations.”
So whether it is by serving biscuits at a homeless shelter or helping an adult learn to read, there are many ways for a person to get involved and make a difference as a volunteer. Not only will it make others feel better, but it will create a positive impact in your life as well.
“The best advice I could give to someone who had never volunteered before is to go for it!” said Santos. “Try something new, do something you have never done before … volunteering is an experience you may love it, you may hate it, but in the end you are making a difference and you will always remember your volunteer experiences guaranteed.”