The Benefits of Volunteering
by Elizabeth Botten, Volunteer
Thursday nights are sacred—I don’t ever make plans, and friends know that if I turn down an invitation it’s nothing personal. I spend Thursday evenings at D.C. General Family Emergency Shelter volunteering in the Playtime Project’s baby room.
I found Playtime when I was coming out of a difficult year. Volunteering appealed to me because I was craving opportunities to incorporate service into my life and experiences that made me feel like I could make a difference. I love working with kids, and was instantly sold on the mission of the organization. Play is such a simple and critical concept: It helps children in their physical, emotional, and intellectual development; cultivates reasoning skills and independence; and fosters creativity. (Plus, it’s just plain fun!) But, adult volunteers who come to play benefit as well.
According to a 2007 report by the National Corporation for National & Community Service, volunteering improves physical and mental health, particularly depression, and can even extend the life expectancy of those who give their time to others. On the Harvard Health Blog, Stephanie Watkins, Executive Editor of Harvard Women’s Health Watch, highlights a doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University whose work on the benefits of volunteering has led her to speculate that, in addition to positive health boosts like lower blood pressure and stress reduction, “mentally stimulating activities, like tutoring or reading, might be helpful for maintaining memory and thinking skills.”
It’s good to know I’m benefiting from these added health boosts, especially when Playtime has been a wholly positive experience for me. I appreciate the Thursday night community of volunteers and the way we work as a team. I might be tired after a long week at the office, but I always feel energized after Playtime. The kids are fun, smart, engaging, and so funny. It’s gratifying to see them develop and grow. For example, “Michael” is so musical—he can keep a steady beat on the toy drum, and I have caught him in the act of singing or dancing more than once. When “Danielle” shouts out the colors or animal names during story time with Miss Carmen or Miss Patricia, the children’s librarians who visit from D.C. Public Library, it is easy to see how excited and proud learning makes her.
It isn’t always possible to connect with every child when you see them just once a week, or less, for only a few hours. But when that connection is made, it’s special. During my second week at Playtime, “Josie,” who has since graduated from the baby room, wasn’t feeling well, and I spent the whole evening holding and comforting her. She usually took a long time to warm up and was happy playing independently. I always made a point of saying hello to her and trying to engage her whenever she came to Playtime. She wasn’t always responsive, but in those rare moments when she sought me out for a cup of water or needed help getting a snatched toy back—a common occurrence with youngsters still learning to share—I knew that showing up and being present mattered. Eventually, she got more comfortable with me, and we spent a lot of time laughing and playing peek-a-boo.
Often, there is so much activity at Playtime—I like to think of it as chaotic joy—Thursday nights fly by. It’s always the most satisfying part of my week.
In the year I have spent volunteering at Playtime, I have realized that the kids I sought to help have returned the favor many times over. And, that is the greatest benefit of all.
If you’re interested in volunteering with Playtime, visit our Volunteer page for details. You can come to our Volunteer Training session tonight at 6:30 p.m. at our office in St. Stephen Church on Newton Street.