A few years back I remember a conversation with a prior boss of mine as we were in a group talking about people who do volunteer work and their motives for doing it. The individual went on to say that people that do volunteer work really do it for selfish reasons and that it’s not about helping others, but rather about what they get out of it and feel from it. I was appalled and thought it was such a negative way to view things, yet somehow it always stuck with me and I wondered if there was any truth to it. Was I just volunteering and doing things for others because I was selfish? Is the world that sinister that even doing things for other people is rooted in selfish motives?
I started thinking back through my whole life and reflecting on the various things I have done over the years in the name of helping someone out. As far back as I can remember I had an innate desire to help others, to volunteer, to be a leader, and to make a difference. My earliest memory of it was in 5th grade when I joined the PAL (Peer Action Leaders) group at school which was intended to serve as peer mentors to help other kids and lead the way. Fifth grade was also the first year I joined student council for the same reason. I stayed in student council for several years after that and ended up being student body president because I wanted to help lead the group, lead the school, and make a difference. I knew then that if I wasn’t making a difference in anything I was doing then I was wasting my time and, more importantly, my life!
Through my school years and in student council, I started doing community service projects which is where I developed the passion for helping those in the community. I was nominated to be part of the Chandler Flower Girls community service club and was elated to be part of the group that was all about community service.
It wasn’t just in school though, I always wanted to help or come to the rescue where I could and help those who needed it. I remember back at some point in elementary school my neighbor’s dog was walking through the yard and stepped into a cactus. It was incredibly sad hearing the dog crying and paws bleeding. I had no idea how this dog would respond to me but in an effort to help where it was needed I came and sat the dog in my lap. As it whimpered in pain, I pulled every thorn out of his paws and legs one by one.
Another time at a young age I was at a park at a family function and my cousin, being young and dumb at the time like many kids are, started making fun of a kid with cerebral palsy. He thought it was funny, I did not. I was quite upset that he had the audacity to make fun of someone for a handicap that was out of his control! In the moment I, as I’m told by my mom and aunt, punched my cousin in the face for doing it. (I’ve never hit anyone in my life before that or since then…. but apparently that comment really bothered me) My cousin ran to tell my mom and his mom that I hit him in hopes of getting me in trouble, but instead they told him he owed me an apology for making fun of the handicapped boy. When he reluctantly came to tell me he’s sorry I said “you don’t owe me an apology, you owe him one!” It was wrong and I spoke my mind to defend someone that didn’t deserve it and wasn’t capable of defending himself. What can I say, I’ve always had a softspot for helping those in need combined with the lack of a filter in speaking up about what I passionately believe in.
My mom tells another story of a day she had an appointment to donate blood and for whatever reason she wasn’t feeling up for it and was going to cancel the appointment…but not if I had any say in it! As a young kid , I went on to lecture her that there are people that need help and need blood to save their life and she has good blood and she HAS to do her part to help. It’s true, it’s how I felt. People may not have extra time to donate and may not have the means to donate financial resources, but a short appointment to donate blood that will replenish itself is a no brainer! I would be devastated if it was myself, my kids, or my family on their death bed needing a blood transfusion and I knew there was someone out there that could help but just didn’t feel like going in to donate that day. I couldn’t wait for the day that I could donate blood myself!
I remember when that day came and I was 17 and went down do the office to donate my blood. I knew I didn’t weigh the required 110lbs, but I wore my heaviest shoes and clothing in hopes I could slip through the cracks unnoticed. As my name was called I distinctly remember the lady looking at me with a cocked eyebrow and saying “girl, you do NOT weigh enough to donate blood, but you can donate plasma if you’d like.” Dangit! So I couldn’t fool them and donate the good blood I knew I had, but as they explained to me the process of donating plasma and the ability to potentially be a bone marrow donor, I was so excited! I signed up right away and to this day I log in to www.bethematch.org periodically to make sure my name and contact information is are to date just in case I am ever a match to someone. There are few things that would excite me more than getting a call saying “you’re a match!” where I can help save someone’s life. I’m still hopeful that some day that will happen and still secretly disappointed each time I get mail from the organization that’s not mail telling me that I’m a match for someone. Some day I hope….
Over the years I have continued to seek out new opportunities to do volunteer work and help others. I have done random one time projects such as Habitat for Humanity to help build homes for those less fortunate. I volunteer annually at Special Olympics because I love seeing the passion and perseverance of the athletes running across the finish line and getting their medals. I bring my kids annually to do Christmas Angel through the Salvation Army so they understand the value of giving to others and are also reminded how lucky they are when not everyone is as fortunate. I take my son annually to volunteer at the Phoenix Homeless shelter in their Read-to-Me program where we both sit and read books or listen to children at the shelter read books to us. It’s a great perspective and reminder for both of us that it really is the simple things that make a huge difference. I frequently stop to give extra dollars or coins to homeless people on the roads in an effort to help provide even a single meal for a fellow human being. Someone once said to me “how do you know they aren’t scam artists and just taking your money for something else?” My reply to that has always been “I don’t know that. But it doesn’t change where my heart is when I do it and the reasons for which I do it. If they are scamming me, that’s something they can live with on their conscience, but I can certainly live with knowing I tried to help for the right reasons whether they are scam artists or not.”
Aside from all of those one off volunteer events I have participated in over the years or the annual events I love to do, the most impactful volunteering experience I have had to this day is the time with my dear friend Edna. It was almost four years ago that I was going through something in my life and somehow got to a point of feeling sorry for myself as though I had it so bad. (I can’t even remember what it was that was going on at that point in my life, which goes to show how ridiculously trivial it really was in the grand scheme of things!) But nevertheless, I remember getting to a point where I finally thought to myself ‘Get it together Alicia! You have a lot to be thankful for and if you can’t see it, then go out and help someone less fortunate than you. That’ll give you some humbling perspective!’ At that time I started doing research on volunteer opportunities around the valley and came across an ad seeking volunteers through hospice. The ad described the need for volunteers to simply go and socialize with these patients in an effort to help provide some companionship for those at the end of their life that may not have friends or family nearby. I remember being overcome by a sadness thinking ‘wow, I can’t imagine going through life alone, let alone going through death alone’. At that moment I knew this was something I not only could do, but that I had to do! That same day I called the hospice agency and started the process of training and getting matched with a patient. It took a bit of time to complete the training hours and get the medical testing I needed, but I was finally matched up to Edna.
I was told Edna had been on hospice for two years already, but remained on hospice as she continued to have a diagnosis of six months or less to live. I couldn’t wait to start this process and meet her! I really thought this would be great and I knew that going to meet with Edna and talk to her or help her in any way is something I could absolutely do. I have now been visiting with Edna every week for almost four years. In these years that I sought to make a difference in her life, I have come to realize it is SHE that has actually made a difference in mine. This lady is one of the sweetest and strongest people I have ever met. She has survived the Hitler era as young Jewish lady and has many stories to tell. She has survived multiple illnesses including breast cancer, and has survived the loss of many loved ones that she has outlived. She has lived her whole life with very little and takes nothing for granted. No matter what life throws at her she maintains that “If you wake up breathing and in the land of the living, it’s a good day.” For everything she has gone through, I have never heard her complain, in the entire four years. She always maintains a can-do attitude of “just put one foot in front of the other and keep on moving”. She has truly inspired me and reminded me at times that life is indeed short and to be thankful for what you have when you have it. Whether it’s is your health, your friends and family, your luxuries, or anything else… they truly are all blessings. No matter how bad you think you have it there is always someone who has it worse. And while it’s easy to get caught up in the day to day of what we think we are missing or how we have it so rough, always remember there are people with far less out there that are far more thankful for what they have. These same people can often only dream of having the “hardships” that we find to be debilitating.
As I think through my life and all of these memories I’ve spoken of, I am happy to think of the positive impact I have had on others in each of the endeavors. But I can’t help but reflect on that conversation several years ago with the old boss, and am almost plagued with the guilt of knowing how much I too have gotten out of these experiences. At times I have felt guilty thinking how I have gone to make a difference for someone else and ended up getting such a profound sense of fulfillment in seeing these other people happy. I have felt the guilt over all of the hugs and excitement given by the Special Olympians at the end of their races because while I wanted to help them out, I also left feeling over the moon excited about the experience. I felt torn thinking through the smiles on the kids faces as we read books with them knowing that aside from their happiness, it was my son gaining a valuable life lesson out of it. I have felt guilty for the countless words of gratitude expressed by Edna, because while my intention was to help her feel companionship at the end of her life, I also know how much it has meant to me and even made me feel validated that I was making a big difference.
In all of these volunteer experiences that I signed up for to help someone else, I realized I have gained such a different perspective that has helped me in my life and helped me keep myself in check in moments where I have felt sorry for myself or wished I had more or hadn’t lost something. These experiences have made me a better ME when the intent was to help them be a better or happier THEM. It has reminded me that we all have an ability and a purpose which I believe is to have compassion and to make a difference. The reality is, I am blessed beyond belief, and helping others less fortunate is such a powerful reminder of that. To me, that’s what makes the world a better place, when people are not only willing but are fulfilled simply by giving to others. When they are willing to think beyond the “ME” and instead think of the he, the she, and the we that can be impacted. Just think of the difference that could be made if every person took the time to help just one other person!
So I go back to the original question of ‘is all of this volunteer work selfless or selfish?’ I guess ultimately you can be the judge of that for yourself, but the conclusion and peace of mind I have come to is this…if dedicating one’s time to helping others makes a profound difference and changes the lives of other people, and that because the individual volunteering also happens to feel good because of it makes them a selfish person…then I’d say the world can use some more “selfishly selfless” people in it!
Work hard, have fun, and make a difference!!