I couldn’t tell you when I started volunteering or what project hooked me on volunteering, it’s something I can remember doing from a very young age. My parents would bring me to work volunteer functions where I would paint pumpkins with senior citizens or pick up trash along the highway all the time. Nothing about this is truly out of the ordinary. What I can tell you is why I began and why I continue to volunteer.
My parents instilled in me from a young age that it was important to volunteer. The amount of times that I had to hear as a child “you don’t even know how good you have it,” and “you are so fortunate you just don’t know it,” were astronomical in response to any mild complaint or temper tantrum a younger version of myself had. From everything I observed from my friends, I had a pretty normal life. I never felt like I was lucky because from what I could tell, everyone had everything I did. As I’ve matured, I have come to better understand why they so quickly snapped back it me.
I truly am fortunate in more ways than one can count, but I am not sure that without continuously volunteering for a variety of causes that I would truly have an appreciation for that. Until my junior year of college, I’m not sure that I really understood this. I had volunteered in a variety of projects in the past which I enjoyed and felt good about participating in, but none really truly woke me up until I participated in an alternative spring break trip during my junior year of my undergrad career in 2011. I knew I wanted to participate in one of these trips, but was a bit late to the game in terms of registration. By the time I got around to registering, only a few spots were open on two different trips. I selected “Christian Appalachian Project” because it included being in the mountains and building homes, two things that weren’t my usual interest areas. I assumed I would meet some great people, give back, and come home fairly unchanged. I could not tell you what it was specifically about that trip that got to me, but something did. We were working on a home for an elderly man who couldn’t afford to fix it alongside a stunning portion of the Appalachian Mountains; he lived in the second poorest county in the entire country, but you would never know. He would check in on us periodically throughout the day to see if we need anything, and in the process he would share his story with us. Still to this day, I’m not sure what had gotten him to where he was financially, but it really doesn’t matter. What mattered was that his heart was full and he was just happy that he had company to help him out. It amazed me that a man with so little had such a positive outlook on his situation. It was then I began to realize truly how fortunate I was and how much I had taken advantage of it. This was the story with every house that was being worked on that week and we all grew so attached to these people. They had little to offer us, yet taught us so much.
Since that trip, I have made a conscious effort to reflect upon why I volunteer. Yes, it makes me feel good inside and as many people would say, “it’s the right thing to do,” but that is not why I keep coming back. Through service I have come to better understand myself and understand why my parents so quickly snapped back at me as a child. Though I hope you won’t share this with them, they were right. I am ridiculously fortunate for everything that I have. While my schedule resembles a bad game of Tetris most weeks, sparing a few hours every week to volunteer helps me stay grounded. Let completing service not only make an impact on others, but an impact on yourself.
Author Caitlyn Buchanan is a graduate student at Eastern Illinois University. She is enrolled in the College Student Affairs Program and works as a Associate Resident Director. Caitlyn is also an intern in the Student Community Service Office. In her spare time Caitlyn is a coach with Girls on the Run and is avid runner. She also a passionate fan of the Chicago Blackhawks and the Chicago Bears and enjoys nothing more than curling up on the coach with her dog Charlie to watch a game. Follow Caitlyn’s on Twitter @buchanan_cait.