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Aging & Society

When Giving Back Also Means Getting Back: 5 Reasons to Volunteer

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For Beth Shapiro, heartwarming stories are a part of the job.

As the executive director of Citymeals on Wheels in New York City, Shapiro oversees a non-profit organization that, last year, logged 80,000 hours of service among 25,000 volunteers, who delivered meals, chatted on the phone, created cards, acted as pen pals, and made home visits to the mostly elderly clientele.

Through those interactions, Shapiro regularly hears inspiring anecdotes from volunteers about connections they make. There’s the man who started volunteering after his wife died, and he felt lost. Today, 12 years later, he’s forged deep friendships with the two senior men he regularly visits in their homes. There’s the woman who found she loved reading The New York Times to a blind recipient; now she’s looking to get her 11- and 13-year-old children involved as volunteers, too. There’s the mother-daughter team who regularly visit a woman in the Bronx who has become a grandmotherly figure in their lives.

The stories go on and on. For Shapiro, they’re a constant reminder that volunteering can be as valuable for the person giving as it is for the person receiving. “I think the first thing most people say is they went in thinking that they were doing good for someone else, but didn’t realize how good they would feel doing it,” she says. “It’s very satisfying, and it’s enriching. It’s also eye-opening.” Shapiro shared with GetOld five reasons why volunteering can be good for the soul – and why more people should consider doing it.

  1. It removes barriers. Many of us go about our day-to-day activities in safe little bubbles. We read newspapers that reflect our views, spend time with friends who look and often think like us, wave to neighbors who share our politics. Volunteering bursts that bubble open and places you in new and different scenarios. “It completely gets you out of your box,” says Shapiro. Through Citymeals on Wheels, she’s met people from all walks of life – from Holocaust survivors to circus performers and more. “They’ve been curators for museums and seamstresses – everything you can think of and they have stories to tell. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear them, and to be the one that they share it with?” Her life, she says, is more colorful because of those stories.
  2. It makes an impact. Whether you’re delivering a meal, reading to an older person, helping to build a house, creating a card, or carrying out any other kind of task, your impact is tangible. You can see it in the way a project progresses or the smiles it brings. And that feels good. “You feel like you’re valuable,” she says.
  3. It’s a way of connecting. In this headphone-wearing, phone-scrolling world, it’s easy to feel alone. “We all walk into our apartments and close our doors and so frequently don’t even know the person next door,” says Shapiro. Volunteering creates bridges. It’s a way of meeting other people, whether they’re other volunteers or recipients. Even a brief encounter has the power to change the way a person thinks and feels on any given day.
  4. It’s easy. Anyone can volunteer. To get started, find a non-profit in your area that’s meaningful to you and inquire about opportunities. Then, start small, and spend a couple of hours working with them to see if it’s a fit. You never know, says Shapiro, you could find yourself returning again and again. “It often starts with a one-time delivery and turns into something much more,” says Shapiro.
  5. It’s needed. Shapiro points out that a lot of people think about volunteering over the holidays. But non-profits, including Citymeals on Wheels, need help year-round.  “It’s so heartwarming to realize that it’s quite simple to give a couple hours of your time, and you’re giving so much, but you’re getting even more back in return.”

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