Volunteerism – A Unique State of Mind

(Originally appeared in The Beach Reporter on 7/9/92.)

On my desk sits my Oscar. My Oscar differs slightly from the real Academy Award, but it is cherished nonetheless.

It is made of gold plastic and is about 8 ½ inches tall. It sits on top of my stack of unsold, unpublished writing. My Oscar has nothing to do with my writing, however. I received it for a volunteer position I took on at my children’s school.

During a recent Parents Club meeting, awards were handed out to various moms at the school for volunteer jobs they had done. My job was a small one. Some of the women performed truly Herculean tasks, like chairing the school carnival or being in charge of a dinner dance. They really deserved their Oscars.
In our community the spirit of volunteerism is very strong, even though demographically our beach cities are more well-off than many communities in both California and the United States. I know many women in the South Bay who have not worked at a paying job for ten or twenty years, but who spend at least ten or twenty hours a week working for various community groups. There are also many women with paying jobs outside the home who find the time to be Girl Scout leaders. Or they work part-time and volunteer in the school library.

Whatever the volunteer position, something special is required from the person. Why give up our most valuable asset (time) and not get that second valuable asset (money)? That’s a hard question to answer, but all I know is that the more I’ve become involved in volunteering, the more I’ve enjoyed it.

The first time I went to a neighborhood Brownie meeting, I met women who had been leaders for twelve years, and I thought that was the weirdest thing. I was signing on for one year, and I would then gladly turn the reins over to someone else.

Now I’m entering my third year as a leader, and I’ve grown into the role. I’ve gained a whole new group of friends (24 eight year-olds to be exact) and a whole cadre of leaders who are there for only one reason. They want to be there for their girls.

Volunteers come in all types. There are those who are perfectly suited to chair the glamour events, and there are those who thrive on the challenge and the limelight. There are those who like to head up committees, and there are the worker bees. I prefer to work behind the scenes. I’ll take the clean-up committee, or the newsletter job. I’ll bake cookies, but am not good at soliciting anything.

I am constantly amazed at the women around me who give, and then give more. They find a fulfillment from volunteering that fills something in themselves that nothing else quite does. Sure, we complain about the hours and the exhaustion and the lack of time. But if we didn’t do it, who would?

Many of us are overachievers and perfectionists. Put more than three of us in a room together to discuss the school fundraiser, and you’re likely to get more lists, committees, and energy than a staff meeting of top executives at Xerox.

We live in an era of such conspicuous consumption, that it’s easy to get caught up in doing things only for ourselves. Volunteerism enables you to move away from your life, and into another realm, where you are totally selfless. It is this very act of putting yourself second that people often find to be exhilarating.

I cherish certain things that money can’t buy – like my Brownie patch in the shape of a heart that reads, Service Given From the Heart. I have a room mother certificate, my Oscar, and other certificates that represent hours spent in jobs that you can’t pay someone to do. But mostly I have the memories and experiences I would never have had, and the friendships I would never have made. Those are even better than the Oscar.

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