You know what I used to hear in the Navy? They would say that “NAVY” stands for “Never Again Volunteer Yourself”. Well, while that may be good advice in the military, I find that the opposite is true in civilian life.

Why I am writing about volunteering? For several years I have volunteered as a crew member in the AIDS LifeCycle ride, which travels every June from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise funds for AIDS health services in the two cities. So volunteering is on my mind!

Many people will ask me why I choose to spend my “vacation” time lugging bags and tents on and off the trucks, waking up at 4am, sleeping on a truck bed, and being away from the comforts of home. I tell them that I am no martyr–I do this because for two reasons: it helps change the world a little bit; and it helps change me a lot. The latter reason is what I want to talk about–so please keep reading.

Why Volunteer?
Every choice we make in our lives affects who we will be in the next moment. With consistent choices, those moments add up to become a “version” of us. For instance, if a person regularly chooses to “jump the line” instead of waiting their turn, they are most likely to become someone who lacks patience. For me, I have a strong vision of who I hope to be as I get older, and so the choices I make every day either move me closer or further from that vision.

If you think about it, volunteering is just another word for the idea of “community”, where all members contribute to the well-being of all. That is how humans survived for thousands of years before the advent of agriculture set us on a course of overriding self-interest. We call it volunteering today because it is not a “part” of our general agreement to live among others–but it should be! Let’s look at the benefits–volunteering can work on many levels:

  • If you want something, give it away: This may sound like a bumper sticker, but it really has to do with energy. Volunteering takes you out of yourself and into the world beyond your own difficulties. You will not feel so alone with your own stuff, and you may find your mood adjusted in a positive way so that you are in a mind-set to take on your challenges. Sometimes the most powerful tool against problems is a positive mind-set!
    Volunteering changes your focus: In our society, bad behavior is instantly broadcast on the internet for all to see and comment on. It can be hard to find the gold among all the rocks, but I notice that a focus on volunteering requires attention on positive resources. There is less time to pay attention to gossip and negative news. It is not about pretending that bad stuff isn’t happening, but about deciding what you are going to focus on: positive or negative action?
    It is a great way to be social: When you show up to a volunteer event, there are bound to be others there who don’t know anybody either. This is a great way to “be a part” of something without knowing many people at first. As you volunteer more, you will find yourself gravitating towards those who appeal to you, just like anywhere else, and you will find your social circle growing. Volunteering can lead to other social opportunities!

You can devote as much or as little time as you wish volunteering, and fortunately there are many worthy places to check out in Los Angeles. You may find, as I do, that the return is tenfold the investment!