How Volunteering Changed My Life

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My freshman year of high school, I went on a mission trip to fix the homes of families in Hurley, Virginia. I remember pulling up to three smiling faces in front of a rundown trailer at the end of a winding, unpaved road. Their tattered clothes and scraggly hair screamed “poverty” like I’d never seen before.

Like many Hurley homeowners, Willa and Boom grew up with lives dominated by difficult circumstances. After their drug-addicted teenage daughter gave birth to a girl, she left Hurley, leaving the baby with her parents. Their son died of a heart attack, and the couple blamed themselves for not getting to the hospital soon enough.

The Hurley homeowners gave what they could to thank us for fixing their homes. They made food, drew pictures, wrote letters and gave hugs. After observing their community, I realized that if I had chosen to stand there and judge my homeowners, I would have never been motivated by their passion. I decided to stop my pursuit of temporal happiness and pursue something more fulfilling—volunteering.

I joined my college’s Alternative Break Program, hoping to spend my Spring Break helping others. Before leaving on the trip, the program taught me the Active Citizen Continuum, which involves four levels of participation: member of a society, volunteer, conscientious citizen and active citizen. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was stuck in the volunteer step. What more could I do than volunteer? Eager to do more, I headed to work at Sheffield Place (a homeless shelter for women and children) for spring break.

My group spent the afternoons at Sheffield Place watching children while their mothers learned life skills like how to manage money, how to act during a job interview and how to overcome other rough patches in their lives. I fell in love with those kids instantly. Though they led far from easy lives, they wanted to laugh, run around and play with toys, just like any other kid.

One woman at Sheffield Place, Michelle, shared her story with us about how she felt when trapped in an abusive relationship. After making some poor decisions, she had no place to live and no source of income to feed her children. Luckily, Sheffield Place offered an open spot of residency to Michelle and her children. They bought a rundown house down the street and fixed it up so Michelle’s family could live there. As I worked on this house, it thrilled me to know that her son, Lamelle, would one day call this place home. Though I never saw the final product, knowing that Lamelle has a home to grow up in warms my heart.

After my experience and Sheffield Place. I began to think about why Hurley residents never seemed to move away. Were they comfortable there or did they not have the opportunities to leave? I became in that moment a “conscientious citizen” by becoming concerned with discovering the root causes of their problems and asking, “Why is there a need to volunteer in the first place?”

This semester, I work with an organization at my school called Overcoming Barriers where I teach special needs kids to swim. This type of volunteering proves more difficult than just finding the root issues of a cause for volunteering. No immediate fault lies for the development of such disabilities, making it difficult to determine whether there is any root cause at all. This made it difficult to figure out how I could move from the conscientious citizen step of the Active Citizen Continuum to an active citizen.

A regular volunteer would come to the pool prepared to teach the children how to swim, going through the motions. A conscientious citizen would come to the pool ready to build relationships with the kids, diving deeper into their lives and improving their social skills in addition to their swimming skills. But an active citizen would exceed expectations by developing creative tools such as learning sign language to help children become more interested in learning to swim.

As an active citizen, the community becomes a priority in your life and plays a role in your life choices. The active citizen makes the biggest impact in that communities’ life.

You probably think that moving from a volunteer to an active citizen is a lot of work. And yes, you might struggle, but the impact will be worth it. Next time you volunteer, think about the root causes of the need at hand and reflect with your fellow volunteers. Listen. Ask questions. Why is this an issue? What needs to be done so this isn’t as big of an issue? What can the community do to change? What can I do to change?

The smiles that gleamed across Willa and Boom’s face and the happy tears Michelle shed makes the hard work well worth it. I wish I could bottle the feeling of knowing one week of my life might give people hope for the rest of theirs. Fixing the houses of the Hurley residents certainly helped them out, but mostly, they appreciated that someone listened to them. Wherever you are in your journey to becoming an active citizen, I hope you look to volunteer more, listen to others and move from a well-intentioned volunteer to an active citizen that provokes change.

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