My life in volunteering started in middle school when I walked to my neighbors’ houses and asked them to buy a magazine for my school. This was a huge feat, since we only had a few houses on our road, and I basically needed a car to get anywhere else. Being a competitive person (nothing has changed), I convinced my mother to drive me around, ask friends, and basically harass everyone I knew so I could get the big prize. I don’t even remember what the prize was, but at the time that is what volunteering meant to me.
Fast forward 15 years or so and again I was encouraging people, but not to buy something, rather to walk for a cause. I really can’t remember if it was for the MS society or March of Dimes, but it was through my job and before I had children. At one point my parents, siblings, and some of their kids were involved. One time we met up at the Empire Plaza and made a whole day of walking around Albany for a good cause. It took almost all day, because in our enjoyment of the walk, we missed the turn and had to backtrack and find the route once again! It was all in fun and money was raised. We didn’t see where it was going, but we felt we made a difference or at least I did. Plus being together and having a good time mattered.
When I was 7 months pregnant with Nick, I helped begin the Friends of the Library in Clifton Park and served on the board in different capacities for the next 12 years.
It was important to me that my children learned to give back. Every year through our karate school, I would arrange for the kids and some adults to pack baskets for the elderly for Thanksgiving. Then we would go to a local apartment and pass the baskets out. This level of volunteering created a more personal and hands-on approach, where they could see and feel the impact they could have on another person. They may not have completely understood what they were doing or why people needed help, but they had a good feeling and that was a start.
I continued to raise money for larger charities and combined my love of cycling with supporting the American Diabetes Association. I started with the 25 mile route, then Nick rode 10 miles once year. Then it grew until I had ridden, quite painfully, for 100 miles to raise money for a cause that personally affected my family. So there was that connection. Raising money and pushing myself for something I was emotionally connected to. I didn’t get back on my bike for a year after that century ride, but eventually I dragged my friends into it and continued for a couple more years after that riding 25 or 50 miles. It was that sense of a challenge and the camaraderie of riding with hundreds of other people and pushing one another when the ride became difficult.
Why do we give back? Sometimes, like when we are kids, we are forced to do it until we mature enough to understand the meaning behind it. But what has it been about giving back that has kept me involved in some form of volunteering my entire life?
The answer became quite clear when my son, Nick, was diagnosed with leukemia, and we lost him at the tender age of 13. All my years of fighting for a cause I could relate to suddenly exploded into a mission toward something I never wanted anyone else to have to face. So when I think about what I stand for, I think about my son’s life being cut short and all the potential lost with him. I think about all the children and their siblings who struggle with a cancer diagnosis and how devastated family, friends, and those who tried to save them are after a child dies.
I see firsthand the positive benefits of what giving selflessly can do for others. It’s more than selling magazines to win a prize. Now the stakes have been raised to give people a better chance to live fulfilling lives, to have hope when they think all has been lost, and to feel empathy even though each situation is different.
I believe in the power of volunteering. I believe that giving back makes us better human beings. It’s a way to show love to those who are suffering and to connect to the essence of who we are and why we are here.
Should everyone volunteer? I think so, but for the right reasons. Right now I volunteer and run a foundation that is connected to my heart and soul. It’s a part of who I am. I’d love to do other work like help in a soup kitchen, make dinner at Ronald McDonald House Charities, help Make-a-Wish, and join Literacy Volunteers again. But helping kids fight cancer is what I stand for.
What do you stand for? What are you emotionally connected to? Which organizations do you donate money to? It’s an important part of helping our foundations, but imagine if you could help someone face to face? What could it do for them? How would that make you feel? Do you want volunteering in your life and why?
When you figure out what you stand for, perhaps you will try giving back. Giving a little opens your heart and heals both you and those you have reached out to.