Work & Purpose

National Volunteer Week: April 15–21, 2012

A time to give back to those who are giving back

Dear Congress,

Want to save a ton of money? Here’s an idea: Round up a whole bunch of boomers and ask them to do volunteer work in schools, hospitals, senior homes and their communities. Oh wait, we’re already doing that.

New data from the Corporation for National and Community Service shows that 18.7 million Americans aged 55 and older — or 1 in 4 — contributed more than 3 billion hours of service in their communities in 2008, 2009 and 2010. And the annual economic benefit of all that work is valued at more than $64 billion per year.

National Volunteer Week, honoring volunteers of all ages, may not be a major event in every American household or community, but it should be. It not only honors those who give selflessly but also inspires the rest of us to jump on the bandwagon. It was established in 1974 by President Richard Nixon, who called volunteerism "one of the hallmarks of American life" and decreed that one week in April, every year, would be dedicated to those who give their time to helping others.

Since then, every U.S. president has renewed Nixon’s pledge, usually peppering in his own comments. In 2011, President Obama said:

“During National Volunteer Week, we celebrate the profound impact of volunteers and encourage all Americans to discover their own power to make a difference. … Volunteers are the lifeblood of our schools and shelters, hospitals and hotlines, and faith-based and community groups. … Today, as many Americans face hardship, we need volunteers more than ever. Service opportunities tap the energy and ingenuity of our greatest resource — the American people — to improve our neighborhoods and our world.”

President George H.W. Bush had a powerful impact on volunteering when, in his 1989 inaugural address, he famously said that the way to renew America was to "find meaning and reward by serving some purpose higher than ourselves, a shining purpose, the illumination of a thousand points of light."

The next year, in response to the president's call to action, a Washington-based organization was formed. It named itself the Points of Light Foundation and Volunteer Center and took on the task of sponsoring National Volunteer Week. The purpose of this seven-day event is to “inspire, recognize and encourage people to seek out imaginative ways to engage in their communities.” 

Now called the Points of Light Institute, the nonprofit volunteer agency, with 360 centers around the United States, provides other organizations with a resource guide that gives advice on rewarding volunteers and getting media attention.

There are probably as many ways to volunteer as there are points of light, notably through such big organizations as Volunteers of America, Volunteering in America, Volunteer Match, Americorps and, specifically aimed at our age group, Senior Corps. You can also use a volunteer-matching tool on this Web site. 

Conceived during the Kennedy administration, that group is almost half a million strong, and runs three key programs: Foster Grandparent, with more than 29,000 volunteers provides one–on–one tutoring and mentoring to more than 200,000 at–risk children; RSVP, its largest program in which some 400,000 volunteers assist disaster victims, tutor children, engage in environmental programs and offer their business and technical savvy to nonprofit organizations; and Senior Companions, which assists older adults with transportation, shopping, bill-paying and more.

National Volunteer Week will come and go, but the work of the actual volunteers lives on like a legacy. If you’ve been waiting to find the right situation, let yourself be inspired by your millions of peers who are already involved. You’ll have to find the right place, but this is certainly the right time.

Suzanne Gerber
By Suzanne Gerber
Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality.@@gerbersuzanne

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