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Quality of Life: Volunteer to live a longer and healthier life

November 19, 2014

Quality of LifeThere is a woman who lives in my hometown of Aurora, Indiana, who can be described as a volunteer extraordinaire. The woman, Luella, is active in the community’s RSVP – Retired & Senior Volunteer Program – where she participates in a variety of initiatives to help others in her community. She serves as part of the “Pen Pal” team – individuals who are pen pals to grade school students and share knowledge and friendship with up-and-coming generations. For decades, she taught Sunday school at her church. (She was my Sunday school teacher back in the early 1960s.) She is active in the church women’s group, and she still volunteers at the hospital one day each week as a “pink lady,” assisting visitors and any others who might need her help. I couldn’t begin to count the number of people who have been touched by Luella’s kindness, selflessness and generosity. She has truly made a difference in the lives of people in Aurora, and she continues to do so. Now this might not sound all that unusual – except for the fact that Luella is 104 years old – and still going strong.

Thinking about Luella, I was reminded that quite a bit of research has been done about the benefits of volunteerism. Not only do the recipients of the volunteers’ time and effort benefit, but studies have shown that the volunteers themselves benefit as well. In fact, one of the positive outcomes for the volunteer is that the act of helping others can promote a long life. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, not only do those who volunteer have greater functional ability and lower rates of depression later in life, they also tend to live longer than those who do not volunteer. Plus, volunteers can reap health benefits without having to donate excessive amounts of time. Research shows tangible, positive changes by volunteering as few as 100 hours per year, or the equivalent of roughly two hours per week.

In a 2006 study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, researchers found that when people give to charities (either monetarily or through gifts of time) it activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust, creating what they call a “warm glow” effect. Scientists also believe that altruistic behavior releases endorphins in the brain, producing what they call the “helper’s high.” Giving has also been linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria and a connection to others. This results in a reduction in anxiety levels, less cortisol in your body, and more positive feelings overall, making volunteerism a “win-win,” both for the person you are helping and for you!

In corporate America, it has become almost routine for companies to encourage employees to give back. Some corporations even organize group opportunities for employees to engage with local nonprofit organizations to contribute to their communities. These opportunities range from helping in homeless shelters, to organizing food drives for local pantries, to neighborhood clean-up projects.

The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service encourages attorneys to engage in pro bono efforts and offers assistance in finding pro bono opportunities. Their website, http://apps.americanbar.org/legalservices/probono/volunteer.html, provides a number of suggestions for identifying pro bono options, including a link to “The National Pro Bono Volunteer Opportunities Guide.”

For helping closer to home, check out the Indiana Pro Bono Commission’s website. Indiana is divided into 12 pro bono districts – you can find your district and ways to help on the site: http://www.in.gov/judiciary/probono/index.htm.

The Indiana State Bar Association’s Service Committee sponsors an “Annual Day of Service” that brings together attorneys and judges from across the state to engage in hands-on community service projects in their local counties. You can contact the ISBA for more information. In Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Bar Association offers numerous options for getting involved, including the Ask A Lawyer program, a hospice program and the Homeless Project, just to name a few. The Marion County Bar Association has a pro bono referral system as well.

There are dozens of nonprofit organizations that could benefit from your expertise, time and talent. Find something that you are passionate about and offer to help. Many organizations are seeking individuals to serve as board members. You could start a search of organizations by participating in “Get on Board,” sponsored by Leadership Indianapolis. Check out their website at www.leadershipindianapolis.com. Or you could contact a nonprofit organization directly. You can find most of them online – inquire about requirements for board service.

Another avenue for volunteerism would be to contact your alma mater. Colleges, universities and law schools are always seeking alumni who are willing to share their experiences and guidance with current and prospective students. Alumni serve as mentors, take part in career-related panel discussions or serve on advisory boards.

There are numerous ways that you can make a positive impact on the world around you – and now you know that it can help you to live a healthier and longer life as well. As we approach the upcoming holiday season, a “season of sharing,” consider the ways in which you can make your own unique contribution.•

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Jonna Kane MacDougall is assistant dean for external affairs and alumni relations at the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law. A professional career/life coach, MacDougall can be contacted at 317-775-1804 or whatsnextcoaching@gmail.com. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.

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