Tuesday, January 21, 2014

MLK Day is over, but volunteering brings rewards all year

By Natalie Kessler, NeighborWorks VISTA Leader

Martin Luther King Jr. famously once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’ ’’ That sentiment, which so aptly reflects the focus of his life, is at the heart of Martin Luther King Jr. Day  -- the only federal holiday designed to encourage Americans to commit to a day of service. But volunteerism is a contribution – and a joy – that can and should be practiced throughout the year.  

Take me, for example. As a participant in the AmeriCorps VISTA program, when individuals ask what I do for a living, I could respond in a number of ways. I could say I help a diverse group of people accomplish tasks around the country. I could respond with a long-winded description of how I provide administrative support, resources and other assistance to individuals who are striving to make their communities a better place. My actual answer? “I volunteer.”

The inspiration for AmeriCorps VISTA dates back 50 years, when President John F. Kennedy first spoke about his vision for a national service program in 1963. Two years later, Lyndon B. Johnson made that dream a reality as part of the “War on Poverty.”  The VISTA program initially had only 20 members. Johnson said to them, “Your pay will be low; the conditions of your labor often will be difficult. But you will have the satisfaction of leading a great national effort and you will have the ultimate reward, which comes to those who serve their fellow man.”

VISTA member Emily Pohlman (second from left) from 
Neighborhood Housing Services in Boise, ID, volunteered 
with employees from a local credit union to sort and 
distribute warm clothes for children.
President Johnson was right. The pay is low (just a stipend for living expenses) and my tasks are challenging… but the results are incredibly rewarding and I’m getting great experience. I lead, assist and provide resources for approximately 95 NeighborWorks VISTA volunteers across the United States. These VISTA volunteers serve local communities by creating course curricula for financial education and home-buying classes, coordinate other volunteers to complete home repairs in low-income communities, write grants for neighborhood-beautification projects, run fundraising and youth literacy programs, etc.

However, you don’t have to be a volunteer full-time. There are many opportunities to contribute in “small batches.”

Why consider giving up even a little of your free time?

Direct service is satisfying.
Volunteering feels good! I volunteered on MLK Day because I wanted to be more involved in my new home city, Washington, DC. Yes, my VISTA position is classified as volunteer, but it is also my job. As such, it doesn’t generate quite the type of satisfaction that flows from direct service. Plus, it’s fun to I get out into in my community and interacting with others.

VISTA members (three on the left) work with 
NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley in 
Woonsocket, RI, to  paint a shed. 
You help causes you care about.
If you’re like me, you follow favorite local nonprofits on social media. Volunteering  offers the perfect opportunity to experience their work firsthand.

Nonprofit organizations rely on you!
Many nonprofit organizations rely heavily on the work of volunteers. They couldn’t fulfill their mission without the contribution of your time.

It’s a great way to meet like-minded people.
Volunteering is a natural way to make new friends, and I’ve even heard of some people finding their “soul mate” that way. You can also learn new skills and broaden your knowledge.

A  report from the Corporation for National and Community Service found that one in four adults volunteered through an organization in 2012. Altogether, 64.5 million Americans volunteered nearly 7.9 billion hours. Why not join them? You can volunteer as much or as little as you like – whether it be a couple of hours a year, a month or every week. If you don’t have a favorite local nonprofit already, you can search for a service opportunity through any one of these three websites:

What are your favorite ways to volunteer? Do you have tips for fitting it into your schedule?