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Volunteer: give 'til it feels good!

There are numerous avenues for volunteerism, and many of our ADAA members participate on a regular basis for a variety of reasons. The following is one member's account of her international experience and an exploration of the benefits of volunteering that can shape your life.

Kristy S. Borquez, CDA, RDAEF, FADAA Chair, Committee an Volunteerism

We were exhausted. The temperature in the room had reached 95 degrees with the only air circulation coming from a small electric fan that worked when the electricity was on, which was intermittent. We had been treating patients from early morning and it was now approaching sundown. Our team of six included two dentists and four dental auxiliaries all of whom were seasoned veterans with Project Stretch: Dentistry Reaching Out to Children. We had traveled to Cape Verde, a chain of islands off the northwest coast of Africa to provide preventive and emergency care for the children of Santiago, the largest and one of the poorest islands in the archipelago. This day we had examined and treated dozens of children and were presently cleaning up the room where we had devised a makeshift dental clinic. In walked one of our Cape Verdean helpers with a child in tow. It seems he had climbed through a window in one of the rooms in the medical compound where we were. He explained to the helper that he just had to see the dentist. How could we refuse such a request? We agreed to examine and treat him even though we were all hot, tired, and hungry. The smile on that child's face is one memory I carry with me to this day.

Occasionally through the years have been asked why would I not only suffer the heat and poor living conditions, along with the effects of dehydration, but also look forward to it year after year? And why would many others willingly accompany me to these remote areas of the world?

Volunteerism, or the offering of one's time to help others in need, has been studied at length, to determine the drivers and effects of volunteer activities. Often the choice of a volunteer activity is rooted in a personal "love for the cause." The family and friends who rally around a cancer victim to raise funds for medical expenses or research are volunteers who are personally invested in their volunteer activity. But what about those who volunteer to help out when there is no apparent personal motivation? Helping those who have been displaced by natural disasters such as the victims of the Asian tsunami or Hurricane Katrina is an example of altruism in its purest form. If you ask these volunteers why they do it, you will probably hear answers like, "Because it makes me feel good," or "I feel so lucky in my life, I just want to give something back." Studies have shown that these random acts of kindness actually do have positive psychological, emotional, physical, professional, social, and spiritual benefits for the volunteer. This article will explore each of these benefits in detail.

Psychological/Emotional Benefits

In the book Healthy Pleasures Robert Ornstein suggests that "We can get a special kind of attention from those we help. This sincere gratitude can be very emotionally nourishing." This genuine appreciation that we all crave brings with it increased self-acceptance. In addition, volunteering reduces self-absorption and a sense of isolation. The more we "get involved" the less isolated we become.

Sociologist Allen Luks studied 1500 women who over a period of time volunteered in a number of projects and reported their feelings during and after these projects. Many subjects reported a feeling of euphoria, a "helper's high," similar to the "runner's high" that athletes report after participating in a physically challenging sport. These women spoke of having increased energy, a satisfying state of calm, and a feeling of warmth and well-being lasting long after the project ended.

An additional emotional benefit of volunteering is an increased sense of control over one's life. When a person gives willingly of his/her time, it is a wonderful affirmation of will, i.e., doing what one wants to do, not what one has to do. This increased sense of control in turn reduces inner stress, which enhances overall health and well-being.

Consider the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment you will get from mastering a task and realizing your own capabilities, particularly in unfamiliar surroundings with less than ideal conditions. Learning that you are capable of adapting and facing challenges confidently increases your ability to cope with crises. Nothing is more self-affirming than knowing that you've done a job well and that it has benefited someone else. Most often this self-affirmation comes in the form of immediate feedback from those whom you have helped.

Improved concentration and enjoyment of life experiences are also side effects of volunteering. Coupled with an appreciation for what you have, the volunteer experience leads to a renewed pleasure in your own life.

Most likely the most visible and often cited emotional benefit of volunteering is the enhanced compassion and empathy we gain from the volunteer activity. Translating feelings into action has a domino effect. The more we volunteer, the more empathic we become and the more we want to help. The more we share our experiences with others, the more others want to become a part of the volunteer effort.

Physical Benefits

When stress is reduced, as it is when one volunteers, there is an increased production of endorphins, the brain's natural tranquilizer. Many studies have been done exploring the mind/body connection and the effect that stress has on the body's ability to fight disease. The father of stress reduction, Dr. Hans Selye, believed that sustained good deeds have a cumulative positive effect on our well-being. Dr. Dennis Jaffe in Healing from Within states that "All disease is social in nature," and that "Over-involvement with self at the expense of the community leads to 'psychological dislocation' and anxiety." The preventive therapy for this sense of isolation is therefore to reach out to the community and become involved in a philanthropic activity.

Norman Cousins and his UCLA School of Medicine task force studied the relationship between the mind and the immune system and found that emotional stress depresses that system that can lead to chronic illness and even death. That the mind and body work together has been documented exhaustively. Not surprisingly, some consider "concern for others" to be the most important positive factor.

Additional physical benefits of volunteering include an enhanced functioning of the body's immune system, a decreased metabolic rate, improved cardiovascular circulation, healthier sleep, and the most impressive of all, greater longevity. A 10-year study of physical health and social activities of 2700 men in Tecumseh, Michigan, found that those who did regular volunteer work had death rates 2 1/2 times lower than those who didn't.

Professional Benefits

Aside from the intrinsic benefits noted above, several other important benefits should be noted. Volunteering offers the opportunity to network with others who may be excellent business contacts in the future. Volunteer projects often bring together colleagues in the same field who may become important members of your business network, so important in today's work environment.

Volunteer opportunities are a forum for learning. The mutual exchange of information, especially in one's own profession, can offer critical education for the professional. In dentistry, continuing education credits are given for participating in volunteer activities in the community. DANB grants 2 CEUs per year for community activities.

Volunteering also may offer the opportunity for advancement in your field. The Boards of Directors of volunteer organizations are often very influential in their field. Working side by side with these people may offer a unique possibility of advancing in your chosen field.

Social Benefits

The opportunity to make new friends and acquaintances enhances the volunteer experience. Coupled with the chance to visit other countries or become acquainted with other cultures, the social benefits of volunteering become a powerful incentive. On one of my trips to CapeVerde, I was fortunate to be invited to meet with the President and First Lady. Many of us have met with ministers of health, ambassadors, and mayors of the areas we visit, opportunities few of us would have at home. Strong bonds form quickly between individuals working together on a common goal. Some of my closest friends have come from my volunteer activities.

Spiritual Benefits

As the team returning from Venezuela disembarked from the plane, we waited anxiously for their reactions to their project. This was the first time that any of them had participated and so it was important to get their feedback. Although tired from the long trip, everyone simply glowed with enthusiasm tot what they had done. The husband of one of the volunteer dentists commented, "It's like she's seen God!" This comment has been repeated again and again to me through the years by those waiting at home for their loved ones to return from a program.

Volunteers have reported a heightened sense of appreciation and acceptance of others after participating in a philanthropic project. They have also described a sustained peace of mind and a greater "connectedness to God or a Higher Being." This has translated for them into a great clarity about the meaning and the purpose of their lives and has motivated them to continue to volunteer.

Barriers to Getting Involved

Despite all the wonderful reasons to become a volunteer, why is it that the numbers of volunteers are so low and that organizations that depend on volunteers to survive are struggling? According to Independent Sector, an organization that tracks volunteer hours and the dollar value of volunteer hours, in the year 2000 44% of all adults gave of their time as compared to 54.4% in 1989. What are the barriers to becoming involved?

The most common excuses for not volunteering seem to fall under the heading of "Not Enough." People who do not become involved believe that they do not have enough time, energy, skills, or money. However, these reasons are precisely the reasons to become involved. As described above, volunteering is a wonderful way to renew one's energy, improve one's skills, and usually at little or no cost to the volunteer. And the best way to find time to volunteer is to only offer the time that one truly has to give. One of the reasons for early burnout from volunteering is overcommitting time. How then to get involved most effectively?

The Do's and Don'ts of Volunteering

* Do pick a task you are capable of doing

* Do start out slowly; pace yourself

* Do join an activity or organization with a friend

* Do choose an activity that will-bring you in contact with others. There seems to be a direct correlation between social interaction and the positive benefits of volunteering

* Do make it clear how much time you can reasonably commit to a project

* Do enjoy yourself

* Do keep a sense of humor

* Don't overpromise

* Don't overextend yourself

* Don't overreact to circumstances beyond anyone's control

Remember: A Bit of Fragrance Always Clings to the Hand that Gives You Roses!

Chinese Proverb

For further information about Project Stretch, visit www.projectstretch.org

References

(1.) Ornstein RE. Healthy Pleasures. Perseus Books; 1989.

(2.) Value of Volunteer Time. Independent Sector. www.independentsector.org/programs/research/volunteer_time.html.

(3.) Luks A. with Payne P. The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others. Fawcett; 1992.

(4.) http://www.actsofkindness.org

(5.) Jaffe D. Healing from Within. Simon and Schuster; 1980.

(6.) Cousins N. Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration. Norton; 1979.

Sheila Clancy is the cofounder and a Past President of Project Stretch, Inc: Dentistry Reaching Out to Children, an organization that since its inception in 1988 has provided poor children in the United States and around the world with preventive and emergency services. Ms. Clancy is also a Past President of the Massachusetts Dental Assistants Association. She is a national lecturer and a practice management consultant with over 35 years in dentistry.
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Title Annotation:anaysis of volunteerism
Author:Clancy, Sheila A.
Publication:The Dental Assistant
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:2017
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