When We Volunteer

Spending my evening at a nursing home was not how I had envisioned my weekend starting out. However, sometimes when you are asked to do something, you agree to do it even if it isn’t your first choice. Hopefully you agree to do it because it is the right thing to do, even if not the most fun. On this particular Friday evening, our family was on the schedule to provide the program at our local nursing home.

For our program, our family put together some songs that we had sung together before. The children polished up their piano recital pieces, picked out some scripture passages to read, and we headed to the chapel. We were instructed to introduce ourselves, provide the program, and then talk with the residents afterwards. So much of public presentation is based upon feedback from the audience; you can sense what is being responded to, what is being enjoyed. If body language was any indication on that Friday evening, not much was being enjoyed! We finished up our prepared pieces and thanked the residents for taking time to come and listen.

Feeling uncomfortable and knowing the children were ready to depart, we started cleaning up and figured we would forgo the mingling with the residents. As we were packing up our things a woman made her way towards us in her wheelchair. She wasn’t able to move quickly, but it was deliberate. Again, her body language and facial expression did not suggest much enthusiasm, and I was unsure what to expect. She made her way over to us and reached out her hand to shake each of ours and introduce herself. She politely shook every one of our hands, and as I knelt down to get to eye level, I could see in her eyes warmth and kindness, even through a hard and weathered exterior. As she held onto our daughter’s hand, she said, “That was so special for me. It brought back memories of listening to my children sing. Those were special times in our family. Cherish these times because they will be gone before you know it.”

There is a myriad of data suggesting the positive impact that volunteering can have. Most of the time the assumption is that the organization or person being served is the one who is benefited the most. Data suggests otherwise. Several studies have looked specifically at the effects of volunteering on those with chronic or serious illness. These studies have found that when patients volunteer, they receive benefits beyond what can be achieved through medical care. For example: Those individuals suffering from chronic pain experienced declines in their pain intensity and decreased levels of disability and depression when they begin to serve (Arnstein).

According to a Duke study of individuals with post-coronary artery disease, those individuals who volunteered after their heart attack reported reductions in despair and depression, two factors that have been linked to an increased likelihood of mortality in this type of patient. In addition, these individuals reported a greater sense of purpose in their lives (Sullivan and Sullivan).

A number of studies have tried to identify whether the type or amount of volunteering might affect the health benefits. These studies indicate that there is not a linear relationship between the amount of time individuals must spend volunteering for health benefits; in other words, there is not a specific volunteering threshold that must be met in order to receive the positive health benefits. Instead, the research suggests volunteering will create health benefits on any scale.

We are blessed to be in an area with many high quality not-for profit organizations, most of which utilize volunteers. When our twin boys were born, they wore blue and pink stocking caps that were crocheted by volunteers for Newton Medical Center. Our Sunday School class will quarterly provide a meal at the Newton homeless shelter which offers many opportunities for volunteers. Central Kansas is home to many nursing care facilities that utilize volunteers for activities. Mennonite Central Committee utilizes volunteers to put together relief kits, and sort donated clothing. The Et Cetera Shop utilizes volunteers to work the counter, stock shelves, and sort clothing, and we here at Prairie View utilize volunteers for landscaping, event and service program committees, Sunday school and worship, advisory committees and the Older Adult Pet Adoption program.

A study by Van Willigen found that, in general, volunteers report greater life satisfaction and better physical health than do non-volunteers, and their life satisfaction and physical health improves at a greater rate as a result of volunteering. Older volunteers experience greater increases in life satisfaction and greater positive changes in their perceived health as a result of their volunteer activities.

For our family, providing the program at the local nursing home became just one of many programs that we ended up doing as a family. Our first obligatory experience taught me a great deal. It taught me that taking a small amount of time in the grand scheme of things can have tremendous impact. It taught me that things we see as inconsequential can be powerful and life changing for others. It taught me that expanding oneself provides meaningful spiritual growth and perspective. Most of all, it taught me that me that volunteering can bring with it unexpected blessings. I have learned to know many people I never would have otherwise taken the time to meet. I have been given sage counsel from those who have gone before me. I even learned new strategies for deer hunting while sitting with a person getting back on his feet at the homeless shelter.

My list of volunteer responsibilities continues to grow. I have a permanent scar on my back from a ceiling collapse in a house fire serving as a volunteer fireman. Our Sunday school class now annually goes through town singing Christmas carols to senior residents. One year when the school calendar was full and the weather was not ideal, it was our class’s children who pushed us to go out and Christmas carol.

Every person has different strengths, levels of comfort, and abilities. I encourage you to reach out to an organization and look for a small way to volunteer. Sit with a resident at a nursing home. Plant flowers at a local college. Volunteer a day a month to deliver home delivered meals. The list is long of volunteer opportunities and community and organizational need.

Studies may differ in terms of their specific findings, but they consistently demonstrate that there is a significant relationship between volunteering and good health; when individuals volunteer, they not only help their community but also experience better health in later years, whether in terms of greater longevity, higher functional ability, or lower rates of depression.

Take time to volunteer. You might be surprised to learn that the person who receives the biggest blessing is you.

How Can You Help  Prairie View?

Giving back takes on many forms, so we’ve compiled a list of how you can volunteer your time, strengths and gifts at Prairie View.

  • Apply. Prairie View is always on the lookout for qualified, professional staff. Apply to join our family – and encourage your contacts to apply as well!
  • Volunteer. Individuals and groups, including congregations, small groups and Sunday school classes, are encouraged to volunteer.
  • Donate. Monetary donations are always accepted to help provide services to clients and perform campus improvements. Donate online (www.prairieview.org/donate) or mail a check to Prairie View, Attn: Advancement Office, PO Box 467, Newton, KS 67114. Prairie View has also been blessed by gifts of clothing for clients receiving treatment in the hospital, school supplies for the Special Purpose School and games for Turning Point adolescents.
  • Invite a Speaker. We are pleased to offer speakers for worship services, Sunday school classes, and community gatherings. Call 316-284-6381 to schedule!

Eric Schrag is Director of Advancement at Prairie View.