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The benefits in helping others - volunteering

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“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

~Anne Frank

We have all heard the familiar adage, “It is better to give than to receive.” But is this really true?

If you’re feeling down and out and a little self-occupied, will turning your focus onto others’ problems really make a difference?

Research says, “Yes.” A U.S. News & World Report article from May 2007 reported that 30 studies had found that people who volunteer enjoy lower rates of depression, lower rates of heart disease, and longer lives. The results seem logical. Stepping outside of your own circle of problems and focusing on someone who is less well off gives you perspective, thankfulness, and a sense of purpose. This is even being recognized on a national level. First Lady Michelle Obama has put out a national call encouraging Americans to engage in community service. And President Barack Obama signed legislation tripling the AmeriCorps service program, which focuses on helping others in need.

Roland Walden, a resident of Burleson, Texas, and retired from the banking business, has been volunteering with Habitat for Humanity (H4H) for more than 10 years. He serves as a treasurer, arranging audits, and supporting financial and administrative matters.

“Back in the early 90s, I began to read about Jimmy Carter and his activities with H4H. That’s when I decided to get in touch with them,” Walden said.

H4H works by offering a hand up, not a hand out, to low-income working families. Karen Derrick, sponsor relations manager for Trinity H4H, explained how the process works.

“We build homes for hard-working, low-income families,” she said. “Our homeowners go through a qualification check and get 300 sweat equity hours in lieu of a down payment. We provide them with a loan on the house, people raise the money for us to build the house, and the owner pays for the home on an interest free note and pays property taxes.”

Walden, who has been helping with this process for years, enjoys the opportunity to give back to others.

“When you work in your career, success is measured a lot of times in the dollars that you produce,” Walden said. “But with Habitat and other volunteer work that I’ve done, the dollars don’t get in the way. And with people like me, who have had some success in life, you don’t really have a choice but to give something back. Working for Habitat is life-changing – you see it with every family you help.”

Sharon Creel has experienced the same life-changing benefits from volunteering. She works with Therapy Dogs, associated with the Children’s Advocacy Center in Cleburne, Texas. Therapy dogs are trained to visit nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and more. They are also trained to help children who have been through traumatic experiences. The dogs will sit with the children while they are being questioned by law enforcement and even, if necessary, accompany a child to court when he or she has to testify.

Creel’s Labrador retriever, Justin, is the first dog in the state of Texas to go inside a courtroom. Justin accompanied a girl who had to go to trial and testify against a man who had hurt her. The defendant had wanted to intimidate the girl so she would recant her statement. But it didn’t work.

“She had Justin up in the witness stand with her, and she was just hanging on to him and petting him,” Creel recalled. “Her attorney was right there also, and there was no eye contact with the defendant. The dog was there for moral support. He’s sizeable, so he gave her a sense of security.”

Creel loves working with therapy dogs. Before Justin, she had another dog, CZ, that was trained as a therapy dog. In addition to courtrooms, Creel also takes Justin to hospitals and nursing homes.

“When I walk in, people don’t say ‘Sharon’s here.’ I don’t think they even know my name,” she said with a laugh. “But they know the big yellow dog. You’d be surprised how many people will say, ‘You know, I had a dog,’ or a cat or a horse. It makes me feel good to know that even for a few minutes, they get to pet Justin, talk about their pets, and feel a little better.”

Creel provides free obedience classes to people who want to train their dogs to be therapy dogs. There are many different types of services that therapy dogs can join, from courtroom visits to hospital visits. Dogs also participate in reading programs, where children who are nervous about reading aloud can practice reading to dogs first. Most recently, Therapy International began a new program training dogs for catastrophic situations like September 11. 2001.

“If you look at photos from September 11, you will see dogs on the ground with the firemen and policemen,” Creel said. “But not all those dogs were searching. Some of them were there to give comfort in an emotionally draining time. If you look at those photos, you’ll sometimes see a fireman or a cop just hugging a dog.”

Creel emphasized that it is important for therapy dogs to have breaks between jobs because the work can be as emotionally draining on them.

“Justin is a good kid. He’s goofy at home, but once his collar and bandana go on, he’s a completely different, very quiet dog,” she said. “But the very first time he went into the Advocacy Center, when he was just a year old, the girl he was with started crying. At that time, he didn’t have the coping skills yet. When she wouldn’t stop crying, he just sat by her and started to howl with her. You see, the dogs absorb this and that’s why they can’t go every day. They’re like a sponge. They feel everything and take everything in. They are remarkable animals.”

People who volunteer with groups like H4H or Therapy Dogs often find the experience to be life changing. Visit any local bookstore and you will see shelves and shelves of books about self improvement. But the best way to improve your life is often by not focusing on your life at all.

“Some people say they won’t work unless they’re making money. But those people don’t get it,” Walden said as he recounted his years with H4H. “An hour spent helping somebody is worth many more dollars than I could ever make. I am thoroughly convinced that people that don't help others are the losers. I don’t mean a loser as a person, but a loser to their own self. When you volunteer, you’re a winner by far more than the money you produce. You have changed lives, and changing lives is what we ought to be about. If the whole world was about it, we'd be so much better off.”
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I have found it difficult to tie-in to charitable organizations. Granted, I have been a little picky. During my late forties, I chose to pursue a Masters in Teaching in order to teach in a low-income middle school. I wanted to make a difference. Around half way, or so, through the degree program I was starting to work in the inner-city Oakland area. It was apparent to me that I was not going to be able to reach them. I came from a privileged higher income suburban area and had very little ability to truly relate to them. In addition, my appearance belies my inner-self and it represented the very thing that had been oppressing them. Ever since reading the book "The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog", and spending more time unraveling my childhood trauma, which has haunted all of my sexual relationships, I have become driven to work with anyone dealing with childhood trauma. I tried to get training in Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse, in order to work on a crisis line. But, I waited and waited and when a class came up, the training was canceled due to the virus. I haven't been able to find online training. I am considering going back to school for a therapy or counseling Masters in order to make a difference, but that will take years (I'm 62). When I left technology I purchased properties and did all of my own remodeling and construction work. But, the Habitat for Humanity operations that I have connected with have so many workers that they just want me to use my truck to get parts or to load, unload and move products. The most common answer I get when I want to volunteer is "we have more than enough people to volunteer, but we need your money." It's very disheartening. My two daughters and my oldest brother tell me to work for Task Rabbit (a site where unlicensed handypeople can get odd jobs), because according to them, people don't respect something for nothing. I'm retired (I still work on my own construction projects), but I have enough money to live very simply.
Any thoughts?
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