Volunteering is like a happiness pill. At least that’s true for Ruth, a recovering addict who lives at Knollwood Place, an apartment building for older adults in St. Louis Park. Ruth likes going to what she calls her “happy place” — helping others living in the building with recreational outings, special lunches, and other activities. She also likes helping adults with disabilities and children with Down syndrome at nearby community organizations.
“It’s such a gift for me to volunteer,” Ruth says, even contributing to her sobriety and peace of mind. “It’s a distraction from the merry-go-round in my brain. I get to shut it off.”
Another happy volunteer at Knollwood Place is Clara Bils, a 17-year-old Edina High School student enrolled in advanced placement courses at the University of Minnesota. Her community service class requires 24 hours of commitment. “At first I was really stressed about having to do more,” says Clara, whose days are already packed with work, friendships, and school-related activities. But her weekly trips to Knollwood Place to help with the gift shop and other tasks offer a welcome reprieve from her busyness. “Here, I can take a breath,” she says. “Volunteering takes me out of myself and keeps me in the present. It feels so good to be here.”
Reports of happiness abound from volunteers, according to Laura Arne, who recruits and manages volunteers at Knollwood Place. Part of their enjoyment, she says, is bringing out the happiness in others. “We have a piano player for Happy Hour, and he’s gotten our residents up dancing,” says Laura. “That’s never happened before, so I told him, ‘You’ve changed this place.’ He said, ‘You’ve made my day just saying that.’ I notice he’s even got a skip in his walk when he leaves.”
Ruth notes many reasons for her happiness as a volunteer. “I love being with people,” she says. “It fulfills me. It makes me feel good that I can give of myself. When someone says ‘Thank you,’ I feel happy and valued. People love me here.” For Ruth, being valued is no small matter. She has a disability herself, which resulted in her being separated from her family as a child so she could go to a special school. “For a long time, I didn’t feel good about myself,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d amount to anything.” Now she likes knowing she is able to help others who can’t help themselves. “It fulfills me,” she says.
Ruth says that helping others often requires patience and “gets me out of my comfort zone.” Yet she enjoys giving back to the community. “If I didn’t have all this [volunteering],” Ruth says,” I wouldn’t be clean and sober today.”
Slowing down is welcome reprieve
Clara, the Edina student, says she’s learning patience, kindness, and slowness from the people at Knollwood Place.
“I’m used to being around very fast-paced people,” she says. “Everyone here takes their time to say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ They show a lot of gratitude. They’re super kind.”
Clara enjoys the exposure to “tons of perspectives on life and hearing what different people prioritize.” Clara recalls with special enthusiasm what one man said to her: “If I wake up and I’m not in the obituary, then I put on my pants and do my day.” Clara treasures the lesson she took from him: “I have a blank slate for today. I want to use it to the best advantage. I value every day as a privilege rather than as a chore.”
Computer geek learns Russian, gets hugs
Tim Kelly gets a big kick out of volunteering at Ebenezer in Minneapolis, another senior living community. For five hours every Thursday, Tim contributes his “computer geek” skills there, giving one-on-one help to the low-income residents. While his professional freelance activity requires him to work on urgent computer fixes at all hours of the day and night, he likes the steady schedule of going to Ebenezer regularly and getting to know people well over time. He also likes that they “ask for help rather than demanding it.”
Tim says his volunteering has improved his communication skills. “I’ve learned to listen better, to really focus, and to ask questions to clarify,” he says. Tim is inspired by how eager his elder students are to learn. “There is a lot of brilliance still there” in older minds, he says, something he finds encouraging in his early 60s.
Tim helped an 84-year-old learn to type. The man also knows some Russian and wanted to learn more, so he and Tim often spend their half hour together each week doing online language learning. Tim likes picking up a little Russian himself. More often the residents need help with basic computer skills like attaching a document to an email or learning how to search online. If their computer or printer breaks down, Tim may fix it, or he may find them a used one for cheap.
“They hug me and say thank you. It’s good ego stroking,” he says, laughing. “I’ve even had people pray over me and thank the Lord.”
Tim also sees his volunteering as a way to “pay it forward.” His own mother, age 82, who lives in Florida, is getting plenty of needed help from others, he says. He wants to be like those helpers that make it easier for his mom.
“We all need somebody,” he says. “I wish I could do more.”
A costume makes helping fun
Pat Levine is another volunteer who greatly enjoys helping people. “I like bringing something worthwhile into their lives, especially when they smile and I can tell they enjoy it,” she says. Pat volunteers because it’s part of her Jewish religious belief to give to the community. She can’t always give money, she says, but she can give her time.
One way Pat likes to volunteer is by helping arts organizations. She often ushers at the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis, allowing her to see, without cost, a wide range of dance performances, something she greatly enjoys. She also volunteers at fundraising galas and other large events so she can engage in the fun while contributing her time. For one gala, she agreed to dress up as a butterfly and flit among the people who came. “When I have a job to do, it’s sometimes easier for me to interact with people,” Pat says. “In costume, I had no trouble acting because my insecurities didn’t get in the way. I got to use my creativity and I enjoyed the attention.”
Creating goodness is real news
Elizabeth (“Liz”) Andress, a longtime teacher in adult basic education, left her job three years ago to do consulting work. She also wanted more time for her spiritual life and community interests. With a passion for systems change, she devotes herself to big-scale volunteer projects that address social problems “upstream,” she says.
“I think of myself not as a volunteer but as a community organizer leading change,” Liz says. Racial equity, immigrant support, health care reform, and affordable housing are a few of the areas where she has taken on leadership. Her commitment to community betterment comes in part from her strong Lutheran background. “For Lutherans, putting faith into action really matters,” says Liz. As part a multi-faith partnership coalition called Isaiah, she headed up a statewide initiative supporting “health care for all.”
Liz currently serves on the Golden Valley Housing Coalition, where she advocates for affordable housing. She interviews renters to gather information that is then used in lobbying for city ordinance changes to improve housing options for low-income people.
While her activism is grounded in a deep care for social justice, she benefits as well. Her consulting work is mostly done at home, she says, “so volunteering is a way to connect in person with other people in the community with shared interests.
“If I’m isolated, I can get stuck, confused or lose motivation,” she says. She calls her community activity “joyful work.” Through volunteering, Liz says she has learned what “rings my bell,” so she focuses her attention there. “When I’m doing what I want to do, it’s not draining.”
Liz appreciates the training offered by some organizations she helps. From Isaiah’s week-long training, she came to understand the importance of using one-to-one conversations for community organizing.
“I have learned how to invite people powerfully into the work,” she says.
Another benefit she mentions is that “God often surprises me about my assumptions about other people.” Liz is quite good at making plans, she says, but she has also come to enjoy such surprises and adapt to what she discovers. She has experienced other unexpected benefits as well, such as a trip to the Congo, hosted by the family of Congolese immigrants she assisted in Minnesota.
Not all her volunteer work is on large-scale projects. She participates in an informal singing group that visits hospices, nursing homes, and even private homes to bring comfort to people struggling with life and death. Liz values the learning that comes through getting an up-close at what people experience with illness and dying.
Liz also likes knowing she’s making a positive difference.
“It’s all about showing up and creating goodness in the world,” Liz says. She adds, “I’m a rebel against cultural division. That’s what we see on the news and we think that is real. But creating goodness is just as real as the other stuff.”
Her community leadership grows her compassion, she says, and her hope. The hope is not about expecting great results. “Hope is in the action itself,” she says.
Pat Samples is a writer and she supports others in creative aging, body awareness, and creative writing. Visit www.patsamples.com