Friday, March 28, 2014

Reaping the health benefits of volunteering

This week's blog was contributed by Mariah Smith, Five Town CTC's Community Coordinator.

So, a couple of weeks ago I got approached by an organization to do a presentation at a conference outlining the health benefits of volunteerism. As the community coordinator of an organization that is run almost entirely off the work of dedicated volunteers, I’m a big proponent of volunteerism in any capacity. However, engaging an active volunteer base has also been one of those things that I’ve been beating my head against a wall trying to figure out since I took on this role. All of you out there who work in the nonprofit world know what I’m talking about!

People today are so incredibly overbooked. It’s a tough time right now for everyone and budget cuts have caused new duties to be tacked onto every job description. Even kids today have two or three things to do after school in a given week, so how can we expect families to volunteer their time?

What if getting out there and volunteering some time to a cause was actually healthy? Once I did some delving on the inter webs, I found that there is quite a lot of research supporting this idea that volunteerism, at any age, is really good for you. In a 2003 study by Morrow-Howell, Hinterlong, Rozario, and Tang, the team tested the influence of volunteering on the health of older adults. The team looked at information gathered from the Americans’ Changing Lives Study that included several wellbeing and lifestyle measures. The results suggested that older adults who volunteer a lot actually report higher levels of wellbeing (Morrow-Howell, Hinterlong, Rozario, & Tang, 2003)!

While the research surrounding the health benefits of volunteerism have mainly focused on an older age group, prevention science has shown the benefits of volunteerism for youth. In the world of prevention science we often talk in terms of risk and protective factors. Just like with diseases such as diabetes, problem adolescent behaviors like substance use, suicide, school drop out, teen pregnancy, and delinquency have risk and protective factors that change the likelihood that youth will in engage in these types of behaviors in adolescence. Protective factors represent the equivalent of clothing kids in bubble wrap—no matter how many pointy objects there are in the environment, the child will still be protected. Risk factors represent the pointy objects, the factors that increase the chances a child will engage in problem behaviors. Research has shown that prosocial involvement, or becoming involved in the community in positive ways (i.e. volunteering!), is a HUGE protective factor for kids! Volunteering in the community, in any way, decreases the chances that kids will drink, use drugs, develop depression, drop out of school, become pregnant, or engage in some delinquent act during adolescence. In my mind, avoiding these kinds of issues is definitely an indication of increased wellbeing.

Prevention science even yields an incentive for parents to get out there and start volunteering. The Social Development Strategy is a cornerstone of prevention science that helps organize various protective factors in a community to reach prevention goals. Ultimately the goal of prevention is healthy behaviors for all of our kids. Achieving this goal starts with setting healthy beliefs and clear standards by modeling these prosocial behaviors. Gone are the days of “Do as I say, not as I do.” Now research says if we’re going to “talk the talk” we also really need to “walk the walk.” The best way to get our kids to engage in some of the protective behaviors, like volunteering, is to do it ourselves.

Even though we’re all busy, I urge you to volunteer for a cause you’re passionate about. Volunteerism really is healthy for our community AND for our community members. In the words of Elizabeth Andrew, “Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart,” and I know that our community has so much heart to share.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Amazing and informative post! I've volunteered for relief causes before, but I never really thought of that act as having physical benefits, aside from the heartwarming feeling it gives. Your post made me feel like I really need to do more. Thank you for sharing! More power to you and your community!

    Gerald Mccarthy @ WEDO