Strong friendships can be formed in many places. Some in childhood. Some in school. Some in the workplace. Some through church. Getting involved as a volunteer in a charitable or not-for-profit organization is an endeavor that can pay off in many ways, even if you are working for free.
There are the rewards of helping those who are less fortunate or struggling, the satisfaction of lending your talents in a useful way and the gift of friendship that often comes from working side by side with people of a similar mindset with similar goals of improving your community or helping others.
Carol Oostman of Cedar Lake began volunteering in 1996 with Camp Quality Illinois, an organization that hosts a week-long camp for kids with cancer and a year-round support system for those kids and their families. That first year she was a companion, spending the week of camp one-on-one with a child with cancer. Also in her cabin was Donna Marcinski and the two formed a friendship that flourished and continues as do their volunteer roles. The two returned this month as volunteers at camp for the 17th year.
“This is a group with all volunteers, so there’s no competition as far as trying to move up the ladder, so we are all friends,” said Oostman. “Every year we all get along. It’s just a group of really good people. I talked recently to a companion who used to be a camper from years ago and her companion stood up in her wedding. They became very close.”
The camp has a volunteer pool of carefully screened applicants that span six decades in age, so friendships are formed not just among peers, but those of different ages. There are volunteers ranging as young as their late teens to the camp registrar, a retired nurse in her 80’s.
As a volunteer in two completely different capacities for the past dozen years, Karen Adams of Lansing has found volunteering to be a good way to meet people of different backgrounds and form friendships. She volunteers once a week as a diver at the Shedd Aquarium, where she feeds animals and talks to guests through a speaker while she’s in the tank. Her other volunteer role also involves feeding, but it centers on feeding those who have fallen upon tough times as co-chairman for the Lansing Food Pantry.
In helping at the pantry, Adams said “The volunteers are people who really have a heart for other people. They don’t live self-centered lives. There’s a volunteer there who is 90-years-old and legally blind and is at the pantry every week and one of the most uplifting people I know. She is such an inspiration. I always say you get so much more from volunteering than you can ever, ever give.”
I have made deep friendships as I have worked with the other volunteers,” she continued. “We laugh together, cry together and pray for each other. Each one has unique gifts that have helped me realize that no one person can do everything, but as a team we are awesome.”
At age 72, she said she’d like her role as a diver to remind other women it’s never too late to try new things. “I want to inspire other women to believe that they are never too old to do really cool stuff,” she said. She also noted that the volunteer position has also exposed her to people with lots of confidence. She said that the divers are often “risk takers” who won’t accept being told that they are too old to do something.
“As far as the aquarium, I have befriended people from different walks of life that I never would have met staying close to home,” said Adams. “One of my best friends at Shedd is also closely associated with Lyric Opera and helped me get a non-dancing role in Romeo and Juliet with the American Ballet Theater. I never would have considered such a thing if it were not for Mary. These friends have widened my world.”
Want to volunteer? Need help finding a way to do so?
- Get involved at church where you’ll find various missions in need of help.
- Check with local schools or your local library to see if they might be looking for volunteer readers or tutors.
- Call the Meals on Wheels in your area and see if they need assistance cooking or delivering meals.
- Check with a museum or art gallery to see if they could use volunteer tour guides.
- Ask friends and family about groups they are involved with.
- Watch the newspaper for listings about local charity or volunteer groups that meet in your area.
- Check with your town hall to see what not-for-profit groups exist in your community.
- If you are an animal lover, check for volunteer opportunities at an animal shelter, animal hospital or humane society.
- If you are not physically able to travel to do hands-on work, check with non-profit organization to see if you can help by preparing mailings, doing computer work or making telephone calls from home.
- Coordinate a food drive, blood drive or clothing drive – find a business or municipal building that is willing to be a site for the drive.
- Check with military organizations to find out if they need help with collecting items for vet hospitals or care packages for deployed service personnel.
- Think of something you are passionate about or like to do and find a way to help that involves that interest. If you like music and theatre, check into being a volunteer usher at a local theatre. If you like to knit, find a group that makes scarves for homeless individuals. If you like to cook and entertain, see if there’s a group that could use your expertise for a fundraising dinner or cook-off.
- If you don’t have a lot of time, but have the financial means to make a difference, get in touch with local high schools about offering a scholarship and host a lunch for the winners, where you’ll be able to meet their families and see first-hand who you’re helping.