People tend to focus New Year’s resolutions on self-improvement and fulfillment.
Maybe it’s time to rethink the resolution.
In 2020, about 75% of adult Americans set a goal to better themselves in 2021. But Forbes reported there is
research to show that, year after year — for a variety of reasons — most have abandoned the effort by February.
So … here we go again? It doesn’t have to be that way.
Volunteer opportunities abound, especially if you find something that you like doing anyway, said Larry Boehm of Leechburg.
In 2010, Boehm volunteered to help tend to the abandoned Leechburg Cemetery after driving by and seeing the job being done by older people.
“I recognized that the work couldn’t just be done by people in their 70s,” said Boehm, 49. “It’s just too tough to be up there at that age cutting 5 acres of grass. The opportunity came up, and I got involved. After that, things just kind of cascaded.”
He would visit the Leechburg Museum to research the cemetery and was asked to join its board. Then it was the Leechburg Shade Tree Commission, Community Development Corp. and Parks Committee, along with the Experience Armstrong tourist information center.
“My wife (Jennifer) once asked me if I was getting tired of it, and if I thought about quitting,” said Boehm, who works in data services for Verizon. “It does take time away from her, but she’s still supportive. But I can get in the car and go to the store, and on the way there, see tangible evidence of some way I have helped.
“I literally can see things I’ve done over the past 10 years and say, ‘If I hadn’t done this, this would be a lot worse’ or ‘This wouldn’t even be here.’ And that’s pretty motivating.”
Seeing results also is a motivating force for Theo van de Venne of Murrysville, who has been volunteer coordinator for Murrysville Parks since 1999.
“I work practically every day in the parks,” said van de Venne, 80. “I enjoy being in the woods better than being in the inside of my house.”
Her particular interest is in environmental improvements such as eradicating invasive species like garlic mustard.
“My resolution is to get more volunteers and to get more students involved,” she said. “You get an education as a volunteer, and you get the beauty of the woods and the benefit of having the natural areas around us.”
‘The least of these’
John and Mary Timberlake of Greensburg said they find reward in helping those who can’t help themselves. In June 2019, they founded Living Hope Outreach, a food ministry that serves a free meal every Thursday at First Baptist Church in Jeannette.
The idea started brewing at a 2016 church convention they attended in Orlando, Fla., where they were encouraged to find “a God-sized dream,” Mary said. She kept returning to Chapter 25 of the biblical book of Mark, in which Jesus welcomes into his kingdom those who helped “one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.”
Since the ministry began, they have served more than 25,000 meals and haven’t missed a week, even during the covid-19 shutdown when it was takeout only. Not only do they feed people, but they also pray for and encourage them and try to connect them with other services when needed.
“A lot of people don’t realize the need that we’re finding,” John said. “I never imagined that there was such a need in Westmoreland County, from a homeless standpoint to hunger and food insecurity.”
The Timberlakes find that many people who start coming for the meal end up returning to help serve.
“Seeing people get their lives transformed is probably one of our biggest driving factors,” John said.
Animal lovers are always welcome at Animal Protectors of Allegheny Valley in New Kensington, said office coordinator Ally Singhose.
“We always need more volunteers, mostly with the dogs,” she said. “A lot of the dogs get overstimulated in the kennels, so taking them on doggy days out is always good, or even taking them out in the yard to play or taking them on a walk.
“It helps a lot because we’re also short-staffed at the moment.”
Volunteer applications are available at the shelter or on its website. Training is provided, and volunteers shadow a staff member or other helper until they are ready to work on their own with the dogs or cats.
“We have some long-term volunteers, and they all agree it’s amazing to help the animals who don’t have a voice,” Singhose said. “They can’t imagine their own animals being in a shelter at any time, let alone on the holidays.”
‘Change two lives at once’
There are more than 130 children waiting for mentors through Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Laurel Region, said executive director Stephanie Babich Mihleder.
“The need is heartbreaking,” she said. “What’s hard for those of us on staff is that these are real kids with real stories. We feel like we know all of them.”
People often think they don’t have time to be a Big Brother or Sister, but Mihleder said those in the community-based program meet with their Littles just twice a month, while those in the school-based program meet their Little once a week or every two weeks during school lunch hour.
Caseworkers on staff are there to help if challenges arise.
“You weave them into your life. If you go to crochet club on Saturday, teach your Little how to crochet, take them with you,” she said. “That’s the coolest part — these kids want those experiences. Even baking a batch of brownies is huge to them.”
Many Bigs and Littles develop lifelong relationships, Mihleder said.
“We always say, become a Big, change two lives at once,” she said. “About 90% of Bigs say the Little helps them more than they help the Little. The rewards are immeasurable, and they start right away.”
The benefits of volunteering aren’t just personal, they also are societal, said Elizabeth Jacobs, an associate professor of psychology at Seton Hill University.
“As we were evolving, helping others was likely to increase our chances of survival,” she said. “The more people we help, the greater the chances that when we need help ourselves, someone will deliver. The fancy name for this is ‘reciprocal altruism,’ but most of us know this concept intuitively as ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine.’ ”
Jacobs said research by social psychologist Daniel Batson suggests that, when we encounter someone who is suffering, we imagine ourselves in their shoes.
“When we empathize with someone who needs help, we are perceiving them as we would perceive ourselves in the same situation, and we help,” she said.
Even with the benefits and rewards of volunteering, there are challenges to getting involved, Boehm said.
“It’s tough with a job, family, house, car, all the things you have to take care of, and sometimes it costs you money, but it also saves you money because it keeps you out of trouble,” he said. “It’s hard to know where to go and how to get involved if you don’t know anybody.
“It’s not always easy to get your foot in the door — but once you have your foot in the door, everybody grabs it.”
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