Want to stay healthy? Here are your three keys: eat right, exercise moderately, volunteer.
We hear about the first two all the time, but volunteer? Yes, there is evidence that volunteering helps people live happier and healthier lives.
Now’s the time to focus on that fact — it’s National Volunteer Week. Here at Americares, we are celebrating with 100 people in our distribution center who will pack first aid kits for survivors of the next disaster. We are also hosting an appreciation reception for another 100 or so who volunteer in the four free clinics Americares operates in Connecticut for low-income people without health insurance. These volunteers must be healthy folks because they share so much of their time with us. Our clinics could not run without them.
In my line of work, I have the privilege to meet many volunteers. One of them is clinical nurse specialist Cathy Hanson-Heath. When she has time off every year, she gets on a plane to El Salvador for a week of volunteer work — as a nurse in a hospital.
While her daily job is as an oncology nurse, in El Salvador, Cathy uses her training and experience in pediatric critical care. Volunteering with Global Smile Foundation, a nonprofit that surgically repairs cleft lips and palates at no cost to Salvadoran families, Cathy is part of a team of 75 volunteers — surgeons, anesthesiologists, operating nurses and, like Cathy, post-op nurses, who do the delicate and emotional work of waking the anesthetized toddlers, managing their pain and discomfort and returning them to the arms of their waiting parents. Americares supports teams like Cathy’s on 1,000 volunteer medical trips each year.
All of these volunteers are in good company: An estimated 62 million Americans donate their time to help others each year. They give up evenings, weekends and hard-won vacation time for a cause or directly for others. In an era of social media and the internet, when each click and interaction with friends is (apparently) monetized, the volunteer transaction is refreshingly and simply human. It is giving without expectation of return, but the returns are great. The value they add is worth billions in donated time, and the good will is perhaps priceless. “It’s about what makes you feel good as a person,” says Cathy.
Thanking a volunteer is easy for me — most days when I walk into Americares headquarters I exchange greetings with a front desk volunteer, working alongside a full-time staffer. Seek out a volunteer in your community this week — at a local school, library, fire station, for example — and thank them for making life richer for us all. And find that next volunteer opportunity yourself. You’ll be happier — and likely healthier, too.