I had the opportunity to be a part of our annual volunteer recognition event recently. We always have a special event during Volunteer Appreciation week in the spring and follow it with a festive barbecue in the summer. We fill the room for the barbecue and the atmosphere is festive as we thank all of our many volunteers and salute those who have achieved milestones of 100, 250, 500 and more hours.
It’s a joy to walk around the room and express our appreciation to the volunteers but, more than that, it’s a joy to talk with them about the reasons that they volunteer and what it means to them. Our volunteers do so many things. They work one-on-one with elders in special programs like Opening Minds through Art. They serve as companions to individuals whose families are not nearby. They help transport folks to programs or to therapy. They staff our Gift Shop, they take part in activities, and they assist with projects from stuffing envelopes to doing personal shopping for our residents. They even bring their pets in and provide pet therapy across all of our settings.
Volunteer opportunities are as individual as the people who provide them and yet the conversations with the volunteers all focus on a few central themes. Those who volunteer talk, universally, about what they get back from the volunteer experience, that they feel that they truly receive as much, if not more than, they give. Volunteers talk about their desire to make a difference, to contribute to someone else’s life and wellbeing, they talk about the happiness they feel in creating happiness in someone else.
We saw some wonderful examples of this at the event. It was a treat to see a grandmother receiving her 250 hour pin while her granddaughter received 100 hour recognition, both of them beaming at both the honor and what it meant. I met a woman who has been a patient in our rehab service following a major automobile accident. She fought her way back, with the help our staff, and now she and her two children both volunteer as a way to say thank you and to “pay it forward.”
In fact, the Wall Street Journal published a study that was done at Indiana University on the topic of volunteering. Individuals over the age of 60 who volunteered 100 hours a year were found to maintain their cognitive abilities more than those who did not volunteer. Volunteering actually increased cognitive scores and scores declined when volunteering stop. As well, those who volunteered reported feeling higher levels of wellbeing as well as pointing out the “warm glow” that they got from being a volunteer.
Reaching outside yourself, making a difference in someone else’s life, doing good with no expectation of anything except a “thank you” in return is the essence of volunteers. How fortunate we are that so many people understand and value that experience. They do make our world a far better place.