Volunteerism affects positive change

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Stephen A. Simko
  • 349th Maintenance Group
Throughout our military careers, we often talk of being a volunteer force, a subset of our culture that has volunteered to serve our country in the profession of arms.

Without disrespect to anyone currently in uniform or those that have served before me, I have always been in conflict over the military/volunteer discussions. Granted, there were times in our past when the draft was in place and a number of our nation's citizens were forced into service. My conflict centers on the aspect that we are all compensated for our service, we receive some amount of pay, housing allowances, bonuses at times, medical benefits and a variety of other benefits throughout our career.

By definition, yes, we did all volunteer to serve our country in the military. But when I talk about volunteerism, I am referring to those that have given their own time and energy to serve others -- these are the people I have the highest level of respect. It is this type of volunteerism that I think each and every one of us owes to the various communities we live in throughout our careers.

There are number of great quotes relative to volunteerism, one that struck a chord with me is from Gandhi who said, "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." As members of the Air Force, we all live very busy lives, from our normal duty schedules, to exercises, weekend duties, shift work, and especially deployments.

It is easy to fall into a mundane pattern of life. If volunteer work isn't already part of your life, I would challenge you to start out with finding just an hour a week to "lose yourself in the service of others."

If you look at the microcosm of "any base USA," I would argue that we easily make up the most diverse of skillsets per acre anywhere in the county. Take that and match it up against the needs of just about any community, and you should easily find a volunteer opportunity that matches your specific skillset or interest. Volunteering doesn't have to be a big, formal program or event; it is oftentimes a simple act we may take for granted that is received with the most thanks. Tennis champion Arthur Ashe stated it best: "Volunteer! Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can."

Although the basic premise of volunteering is to help someone else, there are a number of benefits the volunteer receives as well. For starters, there are psychological benefits. Mark Snyder, a psychologist and head of the Center for the Study of the Individual and Society at the University of Minnesota, states that "people who volunteer tend to have higher self-esteem, psychological well-being, and happiness. All of these things go up as their feelings of social connectedness goes up, which in reality, it does. It also improves their health and even their longevity."

In a recent study from Carnegie Mellon University, published in the Psychology and Aging journal, adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers, demonstrating a direct physical benefit of volunteering.

Although the physical and psychological benefits are real and good for us, the reward I have found most beneficial is affecting positive change in the lives of others. Most of my volunteer efforts have centered on coaching youth sports and volunteering with Boy Scouts of America. Were those opportunities challenging, time consuming, stressful and lots of work? Absolutely. However, that is never what comes to mind when I look back on my efforts.

The best memories that come to mind are that of a kid that was very shy and afraid of camping on his first trip earning his Eagle Scout five years later; or that 12 year old that was about to quit volleyball but grew into the sport and went on to play collegiately; or even a former athlete I coached at the middle school level that later joined the military.

There is no way of measuring the specific impact I've had over the years on those I have served, but I like to think that I have at a minimum been a positive role model to all those I have volunteered with.

In closing, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated, "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give."