In 1998, when Pat Sukhum volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters Twin Cities, he had no idea the 9 year old he signed on as mentor would one day become the best man at his wedding.
Sukhum was 24 years old when he met Derrick Pam and believes he has a lot of life lessons to share. What he didn’t expect was that learning would go both ways.
Their relationship “changed who I am,” Sukhum said. “My compassion for the world is better because of Derrick. I have more fun, I have a better memory, I have tried more new things.”
Sukhum is now CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Twin Cities, a job he obtained in 2021 with encouragement from Derrick, who is now 34 years old. .’ He was so much, ‘You did this. Stop destroying yourself. You should finish your resume by next week.'”
As Sukhum’s experience shows, you won’t know exactly what you’ll get out of volunteering until you do. But many volunteers say they end up benefiting along with the beneficiaries of their services.
Of course, people don’t usually say, “What’s in it for me?” when they do good deeds. But it’s nice to know that an improvement in life may be a side benefit, as a walk in the park on a beautiful day also provides healthy exercise.
Many claims about personal rewards are backed up by research, along with plenty of anecdotal evidence provided by countless volunteers, of which “I get more than I give out” is a common refrain.
That doesn’t mean they’re acting solely for personal gain, says Mark Snyder, a social psychologist at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Individual and Community Studies, who has studied volunteerism for decades.
“I really think it’s a two-way street,” he said. “Volunteers don’t care about themselves and only happen to care about volunteering. Doing good for others and doing good for themselves both maintain their volunteerism.”
Some of the biggest perks are easy to notice. If you want to meet people, you will likely get to know them better volunteering than sitting on the couch. If you want a career in a particular industry, volunteering for companies in that industry is a great way to make connections and find job opportunities.
When Snyder first moved to the Twin Cities, he didn’t know anyone here who shared his interests. So he signed up to work on the presidential campaign. “I met people while volunteering for it who are still friends with me years later.”
Studies show a strong link between volunteering and physical and psychological health.
In a study at Carnegie Mellon University, people who volunteered for at least 200 hours a year were 40% less likely to develop high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. And volunteering can lower your risk of dying in the near future. In a 2005 Stanford University study of 7,500 people over eight years, “frequent volunteers significantly reduced mortality compared with non-volunteers,” the researchers wrote, including when numbers controlled for other factors such as medical status and physical activity.
There is evidence that the involvement provided by volunteering helps maintain cognitive health. While it’s possible that the link between health and volunteering could mean that healthy people are more likely to volunteer, longitudinal studies provide evidence that volunteerism can be a cause of good health.
“You watch people age, and the people who seem to be the most mentally excited are the ones who stay involved rather than just slipping into whatever abyss they want,” says Marie Ford, 80, a volunteer at Bridging. “I feel my mental acuity is related to the stimulation I get from working with Bridging and interacting with people.”
Research shows that volunteering can increase people’s sense of well-being, self-worth, and purpose, a finding supported by self-reported volunteers.
“When I come home after volunteering, I’m energized, and it’s hard to describe the feeling of well-being,” said Carol Mulroy, 86, of St. Mary’s. Paul, a Meals on Wheels driver who also opened his garage as a play center. for the children of neighborhood immigrants.
Brad Benson of Nevis, Minn., who serves as a foster grandparent at a local school, has the gift of lunching and chatting with first and second graders.
“We talk about sports, food, pets, siblings and what they do over the weekend or even technicalities to determine if a T-Rex can beat King Kong in a wrestling match,” said Benson. “It helps keep me young in spirit.”
About five years ago, Sandy Paulus, 59, and his wife, Toni Mula, 60, started helping host AARP. Now the Champlins multitask for AARP several days a week – so often, they say cheerfully, that the staff occasionally urges them to take a break.
“And we keep telling them, ‘That’s okay, we’ll let you know when we get overloaded,'” says Paulus. “When we got involved with AARP, my mood changed, my quality of life changed. I thought, ‘This is my goal. This makes me happy.'”
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Throughout March, The Star Tribune will explore the various elements of volunteerism, from how finding opportunities that work for you to how helping others can backfire and make your life better. And every Saturday, we’ll throw in a challenge for an action you can take. Join this group to share details of your trip and help motivate each other. Join here
Companies are increasingly offering volunteer opportunities as a job benefit. Companies, in turn, can see the payoff in the form of increased employee engagement, team building, networking, and potentially improved employee wellness.
“Volunteering offers participants the opportunity to strengthen their skills, broaden their network, escape the routine of a career and find new meaning in their work,” says an article in the Harvard Business Review. “All of these benefits pass to employers in the form of increased engagement and retention.”
Employees at Thrivent, a Minneapolis-based financial firm, receive 20 hours a year to volunteer. Those who log 25 hours receive $250 which they can direct to the nonprofit of their choice, said Samantha Mehrotra, senior public relations manager.
“We believe that our workforce generosity programs play a huge role in creating enriching and fulfilling careers for our employees,” said Mehrotra. “Through employee feedback, we heard that this program helps build important bonds when teams serve together.”
Employees at the Lunds & Byerly corporate office make regular trips to Open Arms, a food distribution center. The experience helps give employees a greater sense of their food-related work and strengthens relationships, says Kristi Ryan, company events and demos manager.
“Everything there was so positive, warm and giving,” she says. “When you work hard, sometimes you don’t take the time to think about those things, and we felt that and lived it.”
When asked what they get out of volunteering, people often mention a smile, says Snyder, such as “When I get to the door and hand over my bag [of food]the smile on their face makes it all worth it.” It’s a small moment, but studies have shown that “smiling faces have a very powerful impact on our brains,” says Snyder. “They do respond positively.”
And those feelings can last, says retired judge and volunteer Kathryn Messerich, 65, of Mendota Heights. “People always remember how they feel about human transactions.”
Mulroy enjoys the relationships he forms with neighbors thanks to volunteering. “People waved at me as I walked by,” he said.
Then there are the benefits that fall into the “can’t be expected, but you never know” category. Christine Page, community engagement manager at Foundation for Essential Mess, accepts one of these. While on the bus bringing a group to read books to school children, Page met the man who became her husband.
“I thought, he’s on the bus, he volunteered – he must be half decent!” he says.