Volunteers should do what matters most to them

I am a lifelong volunteer. It was required in my elementary school to volunteer, because when you start early it becomes part of who you are. In the beginning we volunteered with our class, but by the time we got to the seventh grade we had to find our own volunteer work and explain why we chose it.

A friend of mine and I chose to work at The People’s Park Café, a coffee shop that served the homeless and was staffed by college kids that we thought were cool. That’s not what we said in our presentation but I’m sure our teachers knew the reason.

But they weren’t worried about our motives. They weren’t worried because they knew that in high school we would go on to be tutors, mentors, and student leaders. They knew by college we’d volunteer as a matter of course, and that as adults we’d chose to engage in whatever way that would matter to us.

They weren’t worried back then because, even though the Café sold cigarettes to homeless people for 10-cents apiece, they were setting us down a road they felt good about. They were right.

I’m often approached by folks want to volunteer and don’t know where to go or what they should do. They want to know what I think they should do to make a difference. I make suggestions and ask questions and try and discern what volunteer interest they have that would match a local program -- but the truth is, it just doesn’t matter what I or anyone else thinks.

If you want to make an impact on the world – do something you really love doing.

As parents and workers and members of families and owners of busy lives, it’s easy for all of us to fall into excessive amounts of obligation. Our employers are doing office-wide volunteer days, we’re supposed to sign up to volunteer at the school, the neighbor is volunteering somewhere they are convinced you should be volunteering too. Or we stay in a volunteer job because they just need so much help.

You don’t want to disappoint anyone, I know.

That’s not where any of us should be. This is precious free time in our lives, and it should be spent somewhere you get excited about.

The truth about what you should do with your volunteer time is that it should be selfish. What matters to you matters the most.

Be a good neighbor. Become a hospice volunteer. Join the parent organization at your child’s school. Be a mentor. Bake cookies for your church. Teach someone to dance. Volunteer at the senior center.

Sit with someone who is grieving for as long as they need you. Take a kid kayaking with the last days of warm weather. Provide some free legal services. Wherever you feel lit up is where you should be.

Now that the kids have gone back to school, it won’t be long before it’s time to start thinking about the holidays. Halloween costumes will turn into Thanksgiving planning, which will send us spiraling into December holidays.

As that happens non-profit organizations will be flooded with holiday volunteer requests they largely can’t fulfill because they don’t have enough work all in the same time period for so many volunteers and they don’t have enough staff to supervise them.

My suggestion to people who are turned away from volunteer opportunities at the holidays has always been to find a need and try to fill it.

Non-profits often produce wish lists and post them on their websites or send them out via email. Schools always, always, always have needs. There is someone in your neighborhood who is having a hard time getting presents for their kids. There is someone in your neighborhood who is overwhelmed with a community project or by caring for a sick relative.

A long time ago I asked Shelly Willis, executive director of Family Education and Support Services, what motivated her to work with parents who are struggling to be parents and trying to get their kids back from the custody of Child Protection Sservices. She said something I’ll never forget: that her kids go to school with their kids and that she wants that school to be a good place where every child has what they need.

What matters to you, matters most.