I hold a clear memory of walking to school in the fourth grade in our small town of LaJunta, Colorado, entertaining a wide array of big thoughts. It was the mid-70s, and for some reason I kept pondering about what life would be like when the year 2000 rolled around. I calculated how old I would be, and had difficulty picturing myself at the age of 33, a number that borders on senior citizen when you are still in single digits. I couldn’t have imagined then, that when December 31st of 1999 finally rolled around, I would be volunteering my time for a city-sponsored New Year’s Eve party in Augusta, Georgia.
Fast-forward to 1999. I had recently graduated from Leadership Augusta, a program to promote civic involvement, and one of my fellow graduates had thrown my name in the hat to be the volunteer coordinator of a street festival celebrating the new millennium. In one of the most difficult volunteer-recruitment gigs ever, I had the overwhelming task of convincing people to not only give up their free time on such a significant occasion, but to do so out in the cold, working such jobs as selling cokes, serving beers and working ticket gates.
Going into the big night, I had many open slots I had been unable to fill, and I worried that there would be unmanned posts all over the festival grounds when the time came for the big countdown. As it turns out, the volunteers from the prior shift came to my rescue, and pulled double shifts to make sure that all went well for the historic moment at midnight. It is a powerful thing when people surprise you with their generosity, and that is exactly what happened. Many of them visited my check-in table at the end of the event to tell me about their experience.
Cheeks rosy from the cold, and eyes gleaming with excitement, they proclaimed that they had an amazing experience. “Angela, we had the best time!” They gushed their enthusiasm to me as we stood around Broad Street at 1am. “We loved our volunteer time and want to do more of it! How do we go about it? How do we sign up for the next community event that needs help?”
In what Oprah would call an “aha” moment, it occurred to me that there might be a need for someone to serve as the liaison between the people who want to serve but do not know how to go about it, with the agencies who need the help but do not know how to find it. The next day, I went back to my dealership and convinced them to sponsor a website called Volunteer-Augusta.com, a resource for volunteers and non-profit groups to connect. What I didn’t know then, but realize today, is that the creation of this website and the cause of volunteerism would become my life’s passion.
In the 15 years since the site was built, I have observed first-hand the impact that donating your time can have. Volunteering allows you to have unique experiences you would not have had otherwise. You learn new skills, meet new people, feel the intrinsic reward of doing something positive and get a sense of connection with your community. You often are pushed outside of your comfort zone, which for an introvert like myself, translates into powerful personal growth.
The most impactful benefit of volunteering, however, is perspective. No matter how difficult your life may seem at times, it all comes into focus when you serve others. Whether dishing up a hot meal for a homeless person, taking donated soaps and toothbrushes to a women’s shelter, accepting tickets at a local arts event, walking shelter dogs around the park or standing outside of Kroger, ringing a bell for the Salvation Army-in these moments, you realize you are a small but vital part of a larger whole. By becoming engaged in a new endeavor, you help our community to become more robust. Your own life experience becomes richer, filled with more gratitude, kindness, and generosity. Your circle of influence expands, as you create alliances to affect positive change for all citizens. Your kids witness the importance of service, and the seed for their future volunteerism is planted.
No matter how much or how little time you have to give, I encourage you to participate in a variety of charitable activities. Build a diversified portfolio of experiences. Your first step is to think about what causes are important to you. Then visit the volunteer-augusta.com website, and find the contact information for those agencies to learn more. If you are on social media, you will want to join our Facebook group, where over 1,000 people have signed up to stay in the loop on upcoming volunteer needs. Follow us on Twitter, where there is a constant stream of 140-character posts about getting involved. If for any reason you encounter difficulty finding volunteer jobs that are a good fit for your schedule and interests, call me directly, and I will do all I can to get you as hooked on volunteering as I am. I’m confident that we will take our collective small gifts of time, and together make a tremendous impact on the area we call home. I think my 9-year old self would be proud at how it all turned out.