Student Volunteer Praises Service to Others

El Vaquero Staff Writer

They come in different sizes, styles and types. They have different faces, voices, personalities and passions. Sometimes they rebuild torn down houses and mow lawns. At other times they bag canned groceries, peel vegetables and bake bread. Often they sing. Often they wrap Christmas toys and decorate Easter eggs. Mostly, they faithfully work behind the scenes, but are easily spotted during the holidays.

Sometimes, one can find especially tough versions of them as they work their way through natural disasters and major events like the past hurricanes. Simply put, they see a need and quickly run to throw themselves into it and fix it. No, they are not Snow White’s little dwarfs. They are the volunteers.

More than ever, volunteers are of tremendous importance. According to findings of the 1999 national survey Giving and Volunteering in the United States, an estimated 109.4 million adults are engaged in volunteer work. According to the Economic Report of the President, volunteers gave an estimated total of 19.9 billion hours of volunteering in 1998 and these numbers have been rising ever since the 1990s.

This shows a positive trend for American Society, because volunteers are actually the ones who are making the most lasting impact on people and cause definite social changes that benefit the entire country.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines volunteer as “a person who voluntarily [which means proceeding from one’s own choice] undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service.”

It is exactly this “free” or “volunteer” aspect of social engagement that changes poverty-stricken communities, gang-infested neighborhoods and whole cultures. Volunteers are the ones who show people value and respect in the greatest dimension. “You are worth my time and resources,” says the volunteer to the person in need, and often they do so without words. Volunteers exemplify in the most genuine dimension that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the greatest power for change lies in love and not force.

Having been a volunteer in different continents and at the Los Angeles Dream Center for nearly three years, I have witnessed the power of volunteer work in inner cities. Over and over, I have seen lives and families changed and restored, just through the simple acts of people showing people that they care.

When 20-year-old Matthew Barnett came to L.A.’s notorious Rampart District in 1995, all he had was a passion to help. He began to knock on his neighbors’ doors and asked how he could make life easier for them. Inspired by this selfless deed, hundreds of people from all walks of life would come and join him in his efforts to help bring hope and restore broken dreams.

Today, the Los Angeles Dream Center under Pastor Matthew Barnett provides multiple rehabilitation programs and over 200 volunteer outreach programs and stands for the meeting point of thousands of volunteers who give their time and resources to help others every month.

During the first three years after the Dream Center moved in, the homicide and violent crime rate in the Rampart District declined by double digits, according to the police. According to recent reports by police officers, stated at this year’s back-to-school backpack give-away, the crime rate is so low now that police officers are sent to other districts. Daily, gang members and ex-convicts are surprised and often changed by the mere fact that someone cares enough to give his or her time and shows small acts of kindness. A miracle? Probably. But a miracle that shows the simple power of volunteers.

One thing that marks volunteers is that though they don’t get recompensed for their work, often they do greatly more than is expected of them just for the joy of reaping a surprised or grateful smile. Volunteers often discover how fulfilling it is to give to others without expecting anything in return.

Often the unpaid workers also enjoy the mere fact that they can see that they made a difference in another’s person life by giving a struggling family a few bags of groceries or helping the self-esteem of children at skid row through after school programs.
For some people, volunteering is also a way of coping with life tragedies, losses and grief. Building new relationships with lonely senior citizens in a nursery home, for example, can help in getting over a broken relationship or lost friends.

Some volunteers also enjoy getting to know and work with other people who have the same heart to help. I’ve met artists like movie makers, musicians and actors who simply volunteer to get their eyes opened and inspired for their next project. Others volunteer out of the belief that it is God’s calling on their lives to help others. People who have experienced help in their lives often simply look for a way to give back to the community. Families who volunteer together often set an example and help instate unselfish values in their children and help raise them to become responsible young adults. Once a volunteer, always a volunteer, one could say.

Surprisingly, volunteers are not carefree superheroes with never-vanishing smiles. They are regular humans with struggles, problems and feelings just like you and me. Honestly, after the first few months of committed volunteer work, much of the “volunteer romanticism” that a volunteer might have initially dies the very moment they meet their first “ungrateful person.” The volunteer realizes “Oops, not everybody does actually appreciate my help!”

But even the experience of rejection from needy people (and still not giving up on them) will shape the volunteer into a stronger personality able to help others even more effectively.

Though volunteers have their own issues, it is often the very process of reaching out to others that lessens their absorption in their own problems. Their problems diminish in scope as they extend a hand to a dying patient or someone who has lost his or her family.

So, who qualifies for volunteer work? The reader does. Just as volunteers have different faces, there are different ways to volunteer, depending on one’s own abilities, personality and passions. According to the national survey, volunteer activities performed were varied and ranged from fund raising to service for a religious organization. However you approach it, it is easy find your area of passion or expertise and invest it into others.

After all, the saddest life lived is the life lived only for oneself. Volunteering starts with helping the old neighbor with her groceries or by taking a single mom’s children to the park for an afternoon. Matthew Barnett put it simply: “Find a need and fill it, find a hurt and heal it.”