In April 2020 in an act of sheer desperation, I googled “San Jose Volunteering COVID-19.” I had been living in isolation in my house a full thirty days—thirty days—likely the longest I’d been in one place since I was 3 years old. I felt cut-off from my work team, which was scattering to the wind as COVID-19 raged in their hometowns around the world.
I felt cut-off from my community: my friendly baristas, people in the checkout line, my neighbors. In my day job, I had the privilege of investing millions in organizations fighting COVID-19 around the world, but I felt personally helpless in the face of the pandemic. My desire to go volunteer was really a desire to be out in the world again.
For the first time in a long time, I came out after that first Saturday of volunteering feeling the right-kind-of-tired and satisfied.
From a loose knit group of regulars, we soon formed a little band of volunteer sisters and brothers. I did not know them in real life; we rarely talked about our outside work or connected during the week. Our staff coordinator took us out for drinks one day, outdoors and at a safe distance. It was a stolen moment and felt like being among work friends, at last.
In the course of the next few months, we—regular staff and volunteers together—essentially tripled the number of families we served each weekend from around 400 to about 1,200 families. Originally designed to be a farmer’s market, we created a drive-through food distribution service with six stations and a snaking maze of coordinated traffic. We established a rhythm together and a trust in each other.
What keeps us coming back to this parking lot on Saturdays as volunteers? Some of my retired colleagues volunteer six days a week, likely harder than they worked for a salary. As it turns out, we had stumbled onto something social scientists already know:
Service is good for your health. I don’t think we acknowledge this fact enough, volunteering is good for you. According to one survey of 158 research papers and reports on volunteering around the world, “there is high quality evidence that volunteering is positively linked to enhanced wellbeing, including improved life satisfaction, increased happiness and decreases in symptoms of depression.”
The more you need, the more you receive. And while volunteering is often associated with higher economic status, these benefits actually increase for lower socio-economic groups. One U.S. government study showed that volunteering increased chances of employment: people who volunteer were 27% more likely to find work than non-volunteers.
Service reduces social isolation in your community. In an era of pandemics–racial inequity, COVID, and loneliness–volunteering has a profound role. Simply the presence of non-profits—as a measure of social cohesion—correlates with reduced overdose deaths in a community. One study in Detroit found that helping others outside of your home “acts as a buffer” against the negative effects of stress, especially for older adults.
Volunteering creates a bridge across politics, race and religion. During an increasingly divided time, my colleagues on the lot—and the guests we served—represented all of the political parties. Republicans and Democrats serve their community in essentially equal proportions. As in volunteering nationally, all races and religions were represented. At least five languages are spoken within our little parking lot.
Many of us are searching for greater wellbeing right now. We’re booking those overdue massage appointments, returning to the gym, and hitting that meditation app hard. Those are all great things.
As we prepare for what Laysha Ward has called the Great ReConnection—an overdue rekindling of our relationships and a renewed focus on community—why not make service in your community part of how you reconnect? Our friends in the nonprofit community have responded to these trying times—safer ways to connect in-person and virtual volunteering for those who can't or would prefer not to leave the house.
All they’re missing is you and me.