Why you should be volunteering

You know it helps your community. Do you know how much it helps you?

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President John F. Kennedy’s famous exhortation, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” is as apt today as it was in 1961. And as a wave of scientific research reveals the surprising physical and psychological benefits of community involvement, one might now add, “Ask what you can do for your country, and what doing it can do for you.”

Helping others, helping yourself

As the country’s economic crisis sparks a sharp increase in the demand for social services, grandparents are rallying to meet the critical needs of charitable organizations and reaping the rewards of increased self-esteem and well-being. “Volunteering is a way to make everything in your life better,” says Sandy Scott of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, which is charged with empowering millions of Americans to help those in need. Those benefits, Scott says, range “from improving your health to expanding your knowledge, and feeling the joy that comes from service.”

Long-term studies show that people who volunteer live longer, have lower rates of depression, and even have less incidence of heart disease than those who don’t. In fact, Americans older than 50 gain greater benefits from performing community service than younger people do, partly because volunteer work offers a significant buffer against the physical, social, and psychological declines that can accompany aging.

Selfless but empowering work

“When you have a job or are running your own business, or when your kids are still in the house, you are in a place where you’re needed every day, busy with something that makes you feel important,” says my father-in-law Richard Abedon, 74, of West Palm Beach, Fla. He is a retired attorney and insurance executive who volunteers with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and the Urban League, and sits on the boards of trustees of the Florida Stage theatre, the Good Samaritan Hospital, and social-service agency The Glades Initiative. He says he defines “free time” as the hours you spend giving “freely” of yourself to those in need.

“When you are a grandparent, retired and getting older,” he says, “you’re at risk of feeling disempowered, alienated, or totally isolated. Getting involved and volunteering brings you back from the edge of society, and into a world where you matter.”

And you matter more than ever, not only because the need for volunteers of all ages is greater these days, but because today’s older Americans volunteer at higher rates than any of their predecessors and bring to their tasks unprecedented levels of education, experience, and energy. According to a 2007 federal study, the highly-skilled assignments that members of your generation have taken on have led nonprofit groups to overhaul their view of what volunteers can do, making those groups more effective and efficient.

A generational revolution

“This generation of grandparents has created a revolution in volunteering,” says Robert Rosenthal, director of communications for VolunteerMatch, a nonprofit organization with a website that enables individuals to search for volunteer opportunities in their communities by location and area of interest. “Technology has made it easier than ever to connect their personal passions with the opportunity to make a difference.”

There’s another way older volunteers are revolutionizing the field — as role models for younger people, including grandchildren. In using their skills to carve out new ways to contribute to the charities that they serve, they have created a navigational tool for young people struggling in a brutal job market. Younger volunteers are discovering that in a tight market community service can help them develop new skills, try out new fields, and collect contacts and referrals that can lead to more profitable employment.

For many grandparent volunteers, the intergenerational bonds are more direct — they take their grandkids along with them. “Talk about putting your heart and soul into it,” says Judy Schmidlapp, 62, an interior designer in Charleston, S.C., who regularly takes her 10-year-old granddaughter, Charlotte, on service projects for Operation Home, a nonprofit that makes emergency home repairs for disadvantage families. “What could be better?”

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