In 1984, the year my husband and I got married, my life as a professional volunteer began. I didn’t know it then, and it didn’t start the day we returned from our honeymoon! But over time that’s what I have grown to be.
I had volunteered in high school and college. Whether it was as an active member of student government, working as a “stringer” for the college paper, or tutoring struggling classmates, I had a ‘hand in’ somewhere trying to help improve the world in which I lived in some small way.
Growing up in a home with parents who lived a life of volunteer service, I sort of learned about volunteering by osmosis. Our faith is one where service is encouraged and just a part of life. In my family’s faith tradition we have acts of service called corporal works of mercy. (Corporal referring to the physical being.) These include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick. We are encouraged to engage in these acts of service to assist our fellow human beings wherever the opportunity presents itself. And sometimes, with just knowledge that there are people in need of help, we are expected to figure out ways to help. So, that’s sort of my background that developed this idea of volunteering.
I believe that volunteers in general have servants’ hearts. There are those who might start out volunteering for the recognition or to feel needed or important. Maybe some people volunteer just to have something to do. And these are all legitimate motives, too. But I would argue that, in the end, and more likely while we’re volunteering, these acts of service enrich our lives. For me, the feeling of being a positive, productive force in my little corner of the world time and time again encourages me to continue.
We have lived in 21 different homes in my 33 years of Army life. I have worked with children in the chapel, with Red Cross, Family Readiness Groups, Spouse Clubs, soup kitchens, post programs, Army programs, with survivor families, non-profit military advocacy groups, in schools at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, in libraries, convents, theaters, and people’s homes. If I hadn’t felt these things enriched my life, there’s no way I would have spent so much of my life engaged in these activities.
In the work force the term “job satisfaction” is often used. I would say that, for the volunteer, job satisfaction is real, as well. No matter if we are making a living with our jobs or are blessed to be able to spend some of our time and energy in a volunteer position, we want that feeling of accomplishment. That’s a big part of our job satisfaction. The fulfillment of our desire to make a difference contributes to any type of job satisfaction.
I’d like to share with you the story of a group of people who, we might assume, would have very low job satisfaction. It’s an occupation that’s not in vogue these days, but I use it to make a point about volunteering, especially in our military lifestyle, though it’s relevant in any situation.
The great cathedrals of Europe took (many) decades to build. Once we realize that fact, we also must recognize that the stone cutter working on the base of the building would often times never see the finished product – the magnum opus. But he had a sense of purpose, an understanding that he was part of something that would last for centuries, something that would be beneficial to mankind, something with meaning. And so he worked with the satisfaction of one who is making a difference. The seemingly insignificant stone he chisels away on today is as important as the statue at the top of the tallest spire that can be seen from anywhere in the city. That…is how we volunteers should approach our work.*
In the military we see a lot of folks who have that desire to make a difference. We may also encounter those people, though, who never take up ‘the job’ (of volunteer), whatever it might be, because they’ll only be here a while and then move somewhere else so why should they bother?
Those are the people who need to be briefed on the cathedral they can help build, or improve on, or reconstruct, or support. And they need to know that, even though it may not even tangibly benefit themselves or their own families, that somewhere down the road another family – or more probably families – will profit from their efforts. When you work on a cathedral, the work never stops. People leave, but the structure remains.
This speaks to all of us who – at one time or another – were tempted to give up, stop trying, for some improvement or change in our school, community, unit or wherever. We must remember those who are to come after. Help make it better for them. How sad it would be if those who had the ability to continue to build never tried.
There needs to be a long range view beyond the stone cutter’s retirement (the PCS, aka the Army move!) or the cathedral that could last for centuries might never be built.
After 33 years of living this life, I have begun referring to myself as a professional volunteer. I make it my goal to know as much as I can about Army and Military programs that benefit our families, whether at the unit, post, or Army/DoD level. And I work to be an advocate for our Army families. It is so important to me because our families are so important to me.
I continue in this role because I love our Army families. I do it because I am grateful for the service of our all-volunteer force, so many programs of which would not exist without the family volunteers, and those who support our Army in other civilian organizations that depend upon their volunteers to operate.
Our Soldiers are employed in a noble profession and those of us who work to enhance their and their families’ quality of life are engaged in a noble activity of service. I am grateful for all of them, for that willingness to say, “Here I am; send me.” Very few of us will get to perform dramatic, far-reaching acts of self-sacrifice or acts that touch large numbers of people. But we can “do little things with great love”, to quote Mother Teresa. And this will impact the lives of those in our community.
I am grateful for volunteer leaders who encourage others to help even more individuals. I am proud to have ever been counted among your number. And I’d like to end with this beautiful quote that I think sums up the philosophy of a volunteer.
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” Rabindranath Tagore
Volunteers live a life of purpose. And they, in turn, encourage those who see them and those they’ve helped to live with intention, with a goal, with a desire to see things improve for those around us. Helping others, in ways big and small, gives meaning to our lives. Volunteers are blessed even as they bless others. What a gift.
(*concept inspired by Bill Shore’s “The Cathedral Within: Transforming Your Life By Giving Something Back”, Random House, 1999)