Volunteering and Its Health Benefits

Volunteering and Its Health Benefits
By Akira Tomiyama
Dharma Net of Indra
Monday, 14 November 2016

Good Afternoon Everyone! I’m very glad to be here. Thank you all for having me. It’s an honour.
1. Make the connection

Last November, as I sat in a room with a group of strangers just like you’re doing now, I was anxious and unsure if I could ever actually go through with it. A year has gone by during which I volunteered with different groups. I had great lessons to learn but also found great fulfilment. Today, I am very happy to share with you some of my lessons, experiences, and the health benefits of volunteering.

2. What I have learnt from the RSGV course

If I were to categorise by nature the things I have learnt from this course, they would fall under four categories.

a. Personal aspects: Knowing myself, and overcoming fear with confidence. Confidence comes with a realisation of your worthiness and love. It does not come with wearing name brands or putting on make-up. Volunteering is a great way to let us do just that.

b. Technical aspects: There are great interviewing techniques and online job search resources to learn. For example, I realise that each interview is a learning experience in itself rather than the result of that interview being a positive or negative experience.

c. Human aspects: Building trust, connections, community awareness. To volunteer is to serve our community. We become community-oriented individuals, weaving resilient and strong community connections and support networks.

d. Social skills: Setting boundaries, communications skills, work ethics & etiquette.

3. Regular paid job and volunteering: Similarities and differences

Ask the class for examples of similarities and differences. I’d like everyone to think of a difference and a similarity between a paid job and volunteering. You may give a textbook answer but your own creative answer is also welcome. Any volunteer? 

Share my own examples.

Similarities between a Paid Job and Volunteering: Duties & responsibilities; Commitment; Punctuality; Interviews & resume; Work ethics & etiquettes; References & criminal checks.

Differences in a Paid Job: Necessity/money; Bosses, hiring & firing; More pressure; Less accommodating schedule; Stricter dress code; Competition among co-workers.

Differences in Volunteering: Passion/fun/fulfilment; No bosses, workers collaborate, no hiring & firing; Less pressure; More accommodating schedule; More relaxed dress code; Workers collaborate and cooperate.

In an ideal volunteer setting, we do not work for somebody, there are no bosses, and we all work together to create something to be proud of in an environment where everybody cares for everybody else.

4. Volunteering mind map: Why, What, When, Who, and How

A volunteering mind map is a diagram set on paper of your own mental picture of Why, What, When, Who, and How you plan to volunteer. It is a decision-making tool for some of us who are indecisive and anxious, a blueprint of our own resources at this present moment. Your volunteering mind map is your plan drawn up on paper to help you achieve your volunteering objectives. We map out on a piece of cardboard the answers to the above questions. The mind map then serves as a constant reminder of our present state of mind in relation to the relevant questions concerning volunteering. You can set it aside and do nothing, pin it on the wall and look at it every time you wake up in the morning. If you are not happy with it, you can even throw it away. Or you can re-evaluate your plan and do another one when you are more ready. There is absolutely no pressure on you whether or when to act accordingly.

a. Why: Self-motivation – Ask yourself why you want to volunteer. What is volunteering? Volunteering is not just working for free. Volunteering is living your dream. Volunteering is putting your passion to action. Volunteering is reaching out to the real world and getting yourselves involved in real life events. Volunteers are people from a variety of backgrounds who are interested in making a difference in the community. Quit looking at your phones and get outside. Get ready, set, go and be a part of something real. Do you want to stay home and look at computer or television images of people and things that are not even there? Or maybe all you want is to achieve a certain balance in your life through volunteering. If you want,  you can do all of them. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Whatever your reasons, writing down why you want to volunteer will motivate you. Writing literally brings emotional and physical healing. Self-motivation is our power of intent – we use this power to silently will something into being. Just another fancy way to say if you want something bad enough, you will make it happen.

b. What: Do it with passion or not at all – that’s what sets volunteering apart from a paid job. So what are my passions? What am I passionate about? What is my dream? And what are my skills? You need to do some soul-searching here. Identifying your true passion and following it will help you choose the right type of volunteer work. So what exactly is this thing called passion? Passion is not a job, a sport, or even a hobby. It is an intense emotion, a compelling enthusiasm, the full force of your attention that you give to something that is right in front of you. Passion is not a plan, it’s a feeling, and feelings change. So then what is my passion? Find something meaningful that you love to focus on doing, something that makes you feel special – that’s your passion. Years ago, a nearby restaurant made me feel special. I started volunteering there washing dishes just by talking to the owner. The owner, employees, and volunteers shared meals together every night after closing. Another good way to find out your passion is to visit your neighbourhood house or community centre and join some programs. Take your time to find out what really makes you feel special. Go out, get involved, and equip yourselves with the skills and resources fit for a fulfilling volunteer job. Often, we lack motivation because we lack resources. But there are organisations in Vancouver such as the Open Door Group from which you can apply for a bursary and participate in various training programs. Since 1976, Open Door Group has been providing a full range of client-centered services to support individuals to achieve employment or community attachment.

c. When: When should I start looking for volunteer work? Set a time line for yourself or not. You either do something or you don’t. Either is fine. Again, there is no pressure on you. I can’t stress this enough because when I was taking the course, I felt pressured by the facilitators to act and the result was, I got cold feet, the exact opposite of what they hoped to achieve. Set your own pace. You decide when to start and for how long you intend to work with a particular organisation. That said, experience tells me that if you start now, there is an upward spiral of well-being. Making even a bit of progress on our goals fuels us. The effort feels good because we have exercised self-regulation.

d. Who: Who do I want to volunteer with? Who are your target volunteer organisations? Why them? Check out their vision and mission statements online or visit them to find out what they do. If you agree with their vision and mission, then give yourself a chance to volunteer with them. Always remember that you are in charge.

e. How: How am I going to approach my target organisation for an interview? There are two approaches: online or direct visit. At your familiar neighbourhood house, library, or community centre, there are usually volunteer programs that you can apply directly in person. This is generally a good way to start. Meet the people and get involved. When you are confident and ready, you may go online and explore other opportunities. Good problem solving means you identify and tackle your obstacles head on. Tell yourself not to be overwhelmed by them. Often, lack of ID, housing, food, money, education, work experience, computer skills, childcare, clothing, transportation, and references are obstacles in job search. This may sound formidable but it’s nothing compared to the challenges we have to face living with mental illness. That said, if you see something worth having, go after it.

5. My work as an operation support staff with VOKRA

My first volunteering experience was with VOKRA, the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association, from January to June 2016. As an operation support staff, my work included cleaning and disinfecting kennels and carriers, laundry, dish washing, and stocking supplies. Not very exciting by any standards. When I applied, I had agreed to commit myself for at least six months. But life is full of unexpected events. I passed out lifting weights at the gym and fractured my right thumb. It took a long time to heal. As I couldn’t lift heavy objects, I had to take leave of absence from VOKRA for a month. Then the summer session of my Permaculture Design Certificate course started and it conflicted with my volunteering schedule. Again, I followed protocols and took leave because completing my PDC course was more important. Despite the co-founder’s and other co-workers’ appreciation of my work, I received an email in June from their scheduling manager telling me that my absence had been noted and they had to take me off their schedule because of my lack of commitment. What do you think of that? There are good lessons to learn here. Firstly, just as with any paid job, commitment is valued too in volunteering. Another hard lesson I’ve learnt was not to override my true self in order to be more likeable and acceptable to others. In other words, I’ve learnt to accept being unacceptable to others. I’ve learnt to embrace the absolute worst: being disliked. This doesn’t mean learning to be a smartass, but it does mean learning to acknowledge weakness, honour my needs and intent, and sow the seeds of self-worth and love. And so even though the parting email has given me the opportunity to return to work when I’m more committed, I’ve learnt to move on for the better. Here’s the thing. If you are not sure about whether you’ve chosen the right volunteering job, commit initially and see how and where that works. Life’s too short to not give it a go on people and things that make us happy. If this commitment couldn’t sustain after a while (say, after 6 months), then it’s not a poor decision to call it a day and move on. At least you’ve tried and it takes so many tries to get one right in life at times, but we’re guaranteed to have nothing if we don’t even try. Sometimes ruthless pragmatism will get us ahead.

6. My work as a community gardener with Gordon Neighbourhood House

Since April this year, I have been a volunteer gardener with Gordon Neighbourhood House’s Community Organic Herb Gardening team. My transition from VOKRA operation support to organic gardening with Gordon Neighbourhood House was a life-enhancing experience. Under the sponsorship of the West End Neighbourhood Food Network, our gardening team plant, grow, harvest, and cook vegetables and herbs to share with the community in the West End, especially people with low income and in need of nutritious food. Here, I learn how to plan, harvest, prepare, and cook lunch for a group of people using the produce I grow from the community herb gardens. In September, I also acted as Gordon Neighbourhood House’s ambassador at the West End Food Festival to promote our work and food resilience and food justice philosophy to the public. As the festival was a North American Conference, I had the chance to speak with many US tourists and folks from other provinces. I’ve also been invited to attend in late November, as Gordon Neighbourhood House volunteer, the 2016 annual Vancouver Urban Farming Forum to discuss urban farming proposals on theme areas such as the historical roots and the future of urban farming in Metro Vancouver. I’m very happy working with this team because I can contribute more to the community and also be able to build connections among neighbours. Growing food off the land, I have learnt to be more environmentally conscious and I am feeling more grounded with our Earth, with nature, and with the present moment. I have also learnt how to apply permaculture ethics and principles in working with soil, plants, and people.

7. List of 6 health benefits of volunteering

In conclusion, I’d like to end this talk by listing several health benefits of volunteering:

Firstly, volunteering enhances our worthiness and love. We follow our true passion as a result of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. Worthiness and love do not come from external achievements or sources outside of ourselves. Because I know I’m worthy and I love myself, I am able to extend that worthiness and love in helping others. Through volunteering, we weave a community bigger and stronger than ourselves and become an integral part of it;

Secondly, the joy of helping others is empowering – people who routinely help others often experience a “helper’s high” – a euphoric rush that releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers;

Thirdly, positive reinforcement from volunteering promotes mental wellness – According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, volunteering has also been shown to decrease anxiety and depression, improve self-esteem and diminish the effects of stress;

Fourthly, if you want to do something to add meaning to your life and reward yourself with happiness and a renewed feeling of vigour, become a volunteer. Volunteering is reward in itself;

Fifthly, performing acts of kindness through volunteering helps boost human dignity; and

Finally, volunteering on a fixed or flexible schedule gives us something to look forward to and has a stabilising effect on our mental state.

In retrospect, taking the first step forward was the hardest, but I could not stress enough that it was the one sure way to clear up the dark clouds that had been hanging over my head for the few months prior to getting my first volunteering job with VOKRA. But the main thing to remember is, if you ever run into any difficulties, always talk to your personal coach, for they are always there to help.

Thank you very much for taking the time!


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