When my sister Sandra and I were growing up, our mom (Susan) strongly encouraged us to get involved in causes and communities that were meaningful to us. For my mother, helping others was important, but she also knew the act of giving results in many clear benefits for the giver as well.
My mom’s views of giving crystallized from her experience as a young, new mother catapulted out of her comfort zone in every conceivable way. Both of my parents were born and raised in New York City, but shortly into their marriage, they found themselves leaving family, friends and familiar turf behind when they relocated to Kentucky for my dad’s job. This was the early 1970s, long before email and the Internet. Air travel and long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive. My dad had a few welcoming colleagues at the office, but my mom found herself feeling extremely isolated at home with her two little girls.
Everything about my mom was out of place at that time in Kentucky, especially the heavily accented and forceful New York words flowing from her mouth when she spoke. Coupled with her dark (and eventually salt-and-pepper) hair, Kentuckians often asked what country she came from. Even after living in the state for a decade or more, we would meet people who were flabbergasted to learn she was American.
As an outgoing and resourceful person, my mom overcame her first hurdle when she got her driver’s license. She’d never needed one before, and I can vaguely remember peering out the front door observing her driving lessons in the street in front of our house.
When she reached out to the local Jewish community, she found people to whom she could relate. Many of them were transplants from bigger cities or other parts of the country. They took her in with open arms and she became actively involved. Early on, she was introduced to Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, an international organization devoted to building peace in the Middle East through world-class medical care and research. She believed in Hadassah’s mission, and she threw herself in to the work of the local chapter—eventually becoming a local president and active region board member.
Our family had to install a separate phone line at one point to accommodate the volume of calls to and from our house as the result of official Hadassah business. My sister and I still joke fondly about overhearing my mom’s countless phone conversations about a fundraising event we believed was named the “Donuh Dinna” during Donor Dinner season for Hadassah.
Her work with Hadassah helped my mom remember there was an entire world out there she could be involved in. She also established through Hadassah many of the friendships that lasted throughout the 25 years she lived in Kentucky and remain with her to this day. She credits the women she met as being her role models in parenting, as well as having inspired her to continue her education. Equipped with her master’s degree in nutrition from the University in Kentucky, my mom worked with the WIC program for many years, counseling young mothers in rural Kentucky and eventually in urban Boston about how to feed their babies and introduce healthy diets to young children. Now retired and living on Cape Cod, she continues to remain active her local Hadassah chapter.
Research seems to bear out my mom’s beneficial experience with volunteering. The Mayo Clinic cites three major health benefits of volunteering to those who volunteer:
Improves physical and mental health.
Provides a sense of purpose and teaches valuable skills.
Nurtures new and existing relationships.
If you’ve been thinking about lending a hand to an organization that is meaningful in your life, there is no better time than now to get started. For me, my mother’s example pointed me towards Hadassah where I became active in the local chapter as a way of getting involved in the local community as well as contributing to the health and wellness facilities in Israel and the medical advances discovered there.
But feel free to start small, whether it’s dropping off your no-longer-needed, gently used items at Goodwill or committing an afternoon to a project sponsored by a community organization. Not sure how to begin? Check out an organization like VolunteerMatch that matches people with causes in all corners of the United States. Whatever you decide to give, you’re likely to find yourself feeling good about your contribution. And with any luck, you may even discover a network of support and lifelong friends, as my mom did all those years ago.