The following article first appeared on About.com. Author Ken Solin shares his experiences as a longtime volunteer and discusses the lifelong benefits of helping others.
Seniors Have A Gift To Share
Seniors have a myriad of skills they’ve honed over the decades, and it seems appropriate to share those talents with people in need that might benefit most. My years of experience as a senior in the volunteering world have given me at least as much as I’ve given the children I’ve tutored in after school programs. And I’m still garnering the rewards.
My Gift Has Been Returned Tenfold
I volunteered to tutor children an afternoon a week after school in a housing project where drugs and violence prevailed. The residents were all African American single moms and children. The woman who started this grass roots program, Royce, ran the program called Women Helping All People. Royce, an African American woman with amazing character and a heart of gold, lived in the community and had raised her two daughters there.
I found her program at my county offices. I won’t sugar coat the work I did because it wasn’t always easy or fun. Sometimes it was frustrating to the point that I felt like quitting because I didn’t think I was making a difference, but I persevered.
I met with the children in groups and worked with them on their homework assignments, and when we had time, I taught them creative writing. Their insular lifestyle set them apart from students in affluent communities and I wanted to give them a perspective on the world around them. I talked about current events without any political slant.
Three young white girls moved in and began coming to the after school program. Their father had died from a drug overdose and their mother was in and out of jail, and a few months after moving in she went to prison. Royce was a certified foster mother and she took in the twins who were nine, and their younger sister who was eight. Royce and I had become friends and I admired her. She asked me to spend some time outside the program with the girls because she wanted them to have some exposure to what she referred to as White culture. While race is a difficult issue to discuss, it was clear that Royce’s motives were genuine, and in her heart, appropriate, so I agreed.
The girls came to my office two afternoons a week for an hour or so. I checked their homework and helped them complete it, but the real lessons I taught them were about never giving up and striving to be the best young women possible. I encouraged them to work towards going to college and assured them that there was money for smart young students who wanted a college degree. I pushed them to excel in their work as students. I sent them to summer camp, bought them clothes for school, and rewarded outstanding report cards.
The Best Surprise Possible
We worked together for several years before they moved away to another foster facility and we lost contact, but I thought about them often. Six months ago I received an invitation to a law school graduation ceremony from one of the twins who was now in her mid-20s. My heart swelled with pride when I RSVP’d.
At the graduation party I saw the three girls, all of whom were now beautiful, young women. They came over and hugged me when they saw me. Besides the law school graduate, another sister had graduated from UCLA the year before and worked there, and the third had opened her own business. This was the magic moment. One of the girls looked me in the eye and said, “If it hadn’t been for you and what you did for us, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what we did.”
My heart melted, and what had felt at times like a burden instantly turned into the ultimate reward. I’d changed the course of three young lives and while I never thought about what I was doing at the time as particularly heroic, the results were nothing short of miraculous. I’d changed the course of three young lives simply by caring. I was humbled, proud, and inspired to repeat the experience with other children in need.
So I began tutoring again in another inner city after school program after that graduation party and the feeling of doing some good in the world remains a powerful incentive. I know with absolute certainty that seniors can make an enormous difference in other people’s lives, and that makes volunteering too important to ignore.
Be Your Own Hero
Whatever your skills you know something that can help children, grownups, immigrants, elderly people, and an assortment of people in need. Share what you have and I promise you’ll feel better about yourself than you ever have before. And the good you do will live on in those you help in meaningful ways that you may not imagine today. Volunteering is a sacred gift and people who volunteer change the landscape of society in meaningful ways.