Olsen Turns Volunteerism Into More Than Just Charitable Hours
It’s easy to think of volunteering as a way of giving back. But what if volunteering wasn’t so much about what we can give, but about how we are changed in the process?
Where there’s nothing, there’s wealth
Traveling to deeply-impoverished regions of Haiti and Brazil has opened my eyes to the reality of poverty, as well as the power of joy and gratitude. One day while working at a children’s shelter near the slums of Rio, our plans for the day were suddenly interrupted when a surprise donation of 80 kilos of tiny smelt-like fish were dropped off at the shelter. In a place where the source of your next meal is often uncertain, this donation of meat was accepted with great thanks and genuine joy.
It was all hands on deck as we spent the next several hours scaling and cleaning each tiny fish so as not to waste a single one. Our Minnesota team accepted the task grudgingly, silently trying to cover up our disgust. Yet, this cleaning party ended up being one of the highlights of our trip.
The kids at the shelter taught us to delight in the generosity of the gift and enjoy the process because we were doing it together. To them, we were preparing a feast together, and the time we spent with them was worth more than any meal we could have bought. Giving our time and finances to others can help us redefine wealth.
Even the small acts matter
I’m in my eleventh year teaching the intermediate Sunday school class at my small, home church. This year, my class is made up of just three boys — that’s it, for three grades. Some weeks I question if the effort I put into preparing for our weekly hour together is worth it. Then Sunday rolls around and I’m reminded that the number of students in the class has no correlation to the significance our time together has on their lives — and mine.
Every time a set of eyes lights up in new understanding, or one of the boys asks a poignant question that changes the way I think about the world, my earlier questions are replaced by confidence that my efforts aren’t wasted. This has implications on all other aspects of my life. When we’re striving to provide our best and to be faithful in our small acts of service to our neighbors, we can’t afford to question the potential impact we’ll have on others.
Rediscover the joy of discovery
I’ve partnered with a second and third grade class for several years through Junior Achievement to bring a series of five lessons on financial literacy to the students. One of these lesson simulates paying taxes from a “paycheck.” The students see how taxes, in turn, fund services that our local government provides to the community.
The students initially respond to their payment of taxes with complaints of “It’s not fair!” and “But it’s my money!” However, their demeanor quickly changes as they begin to see how those taxes are being used.
I’ve heard several students later comment that “paying taxes” was their favorite part of JA! JA’s financial literacy concepts are ones we deal with every day, but sometimes it takes a child to reignite joy and enthusiasm for what we do.
My challenge to you: get involved
Join me in not just “giving back,” but in considering how you might be changed through acts of service in your community.
Questions you might consider as you look to get involved:
- What am I passionate about?
Partner with an organization that supports a cause or meets a need that is important to you.
- Which family members and friends might I partner with?
Sharing the experience makes it all the more memorable!
- What do I have to give?
Can you share your time? Money? Skills and expertise? Encouragement? All are needed!
Start by taking a small step
It’s okay to start small. Consider planning a social event for your coworkers, friends, or family, such as a food packing event, volunteering at a local school or community center, or partnering with a local nonprofit.
Frederick Buechner refers to a person’s calling as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I keep this quote framed in my office as a reminder that I am uniquely equipped to contribute to the needs of this world. You are too! And as we give of ourselves to meet those needs, I suspect we will never be quite the same again.
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