Volunteering: You Get More Than You Give

by Amy Hirshberg Lederman

The year was 1976: America celebrated its 200th birthday, Alex Haley published Roots, the Dow Jones closed at 1004 and I arrived in Tucson with a backpack, a college degree and 80 dollars in my pocket. My parents were less than thrilled with my post-grad decision to hitchhike across the country to “find myself,” and my mother’s parting words summed up her anxiety: “When you stick out your thumb to get a ride, my face will be at the end of it.” Predictably, I never used my thumb but found a unique way of flagging down cars with a bandana.

Tucson was, and still is, a truly welcoming community and it didn’t take long to feel at home. The mountains and desert air intoxicated me in a way I hadn’t felt since I lived in Israel, and everyone I met offered help and suggestions about places to live, jobs to find and the best places to eat under three dollars. (The Frampton-Stone Cafeteria on Fourth Avenue was a big favorite!)

But it didn’t take long before my wander-lust turned to wonder-lust. I wondered, long and hard, about what I would actually do with a Bachelors degree in psychology and no real skills other than waitressing tables and acquiring a serious tan.

There is not much I remember from my twenties (not because I didn’t inhale, but because my memory is getting hazy), but the one thing that stands out is this: volunteering did more to positively direct and influence me and my choices than almost anything else. It may be the best kept secret of all time, one which deserves a great big shout out for most of us who struggle to figure out what we want to do or be “when we grow up,” but its true. If you want to lift yourself up, if you want to find purpose and meaning in your life, if you want to connect with others who share your values, and if you want to feel that you really count for something – get out and volunteer.

I started with what I knew and felt most comfortable with – food. As I shelved and bagged organic products at the Food Co-op, I met wonderful people and learned more about Tucson than any guidebook would ever tell me.  Then I volunteered during the summer at the Second Street School where I heard about another volunteer opportunity working with kids at a counseling center. That position actually led to a job when a parent asked me to work privately with their disabled daughter. We didn’t call it networking in those days, but that’s exactly what it was:  a pathway to connecting to the people, places, and opportunities that would indelibly affect my efforts to define myself and determine a career.

But the most significant experience was my volunteer stint as an intake-receiving officer at the Juvenile Court Center. This required extensive training from some of the finest professionals in the juvenile system and while the hours were long and the demands were heavy, the rewards were great. It was in those offices in the fall of 1976 that I decided to apply to law school so that I could better understand the legal system with the hopes that one day I might help those who found themselves tangled up within it.

The concept of helping others, of giving of our time, resources, talents and money to those in need, is one of the pillars of Judaism,  based upon core values like Chesed (compassion), Tzedek (justice) and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world.). The idea that we are partners with God in the continuing creation of the world and therefore have an obligation to repair what is broken, informs much of the work of philanthropic organizations like the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation. Tikkun Olam is the call and our response can take many forms.

At a time when so many of our community needs, from healthcare and education to employment and housing, are witnessing reductions in funding sources requiring serious staff  and service reductions, it is more important than ever to volunteer. Yet, according to a study by the National Conference on Citizenship, 72% of Americans report that over the past year they have reduced the time they spend volunteering, largely as the result of the recession and a need to look out for themselves. The findings amounted to what the report’s authors called “a civic depression.”

The paradox of volunteering is this: the more you give, the more you are given – personally, psychologically and professionally.  Helping others who have problems or needs greater than your own can provide a perspective about your own life which may be an important step towards reclaiming a positive attitude or sense of self-worth. The informal networking that occurs can lead you into new directions and open doors you never knew existed. It is truly a win-win situation as everyone, from the giver to the recipient to those who are inspired by your efforts and decide to volunteer as a result, comes out ahead.

Winston Churchill said it beautifully with these words: “We make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give.”  Today, more than ever before, we should heed his message.