10 things I learned about being a volunteer at a homeless shelter

homeless comic

I volunteer at a homeless shelter/food pantry. They offer lots of other services but those are the two most popular ones. If you have never done this before you really have your eyes opened to many things. I wanted to share the most important things I have learned from this experience.

  1. The goodness of people. It is really heartwarming to see other volunteers, people who donate, and the fact that these safety nets exist for people. I thank President Lyndon Johnson and everyone who created Medicare, Food Stamps, Head Start, and other programs that give people a “hand up”. It is inspirational to be part of something that you know is making a real difference in people’s lives.
  2. Unexpected benefits for volunteers. As a volunteer, you may feel that your time might be wasted just doing manual labor when anyone can do it. The fact is that very few people do it. Non-profits really do appreciate every volunteer they get. You are thanked almost every day when you come in. Even if you don’t get thanked by management, you always get thanked by those you serve. The most sincere thank you I have ever received have been from people who had hard times and the little that I did made all the difference for them.
  3. More unexpected benefits. Volunteering is almost a selfish choice when you think about it. Where else are you going to be taught skills, gain experience, and feel good for free? Many jobs promise on-the-job education, but very few have meaningful educational opportunities. If you are lucky you might get a job that has online education, but that is not for everyone. Almost everyone can learn from the hands-on education volunteering provides. I could easily write another column about all the specific skills that I have learned just in doing what is deceptively looking for “simple” jobs. Even if you are an expert in the work they want you to do, you will learn something.
  4. Connections with people. You can’t volunteer and not make connections with people. Just like LinkedIn or other forms of networking, it’s not always obvious how those connections will benefit you. In fact, I’d argue that if you look at networking as what is going to benefit you, you are doing it wrong. Connecting with people is often showing them that you value their expertise and skill and that perhaps you can be of service to them. As I have approached people with this attitude, I have been very lucky that people appreciated the resource I can be in my specific niche.
  5. Exercise. Whatever form of exercise you currently do, you are certainly going to get more exercise when you volunteer. Almost every non-profit needs people who can do hard work as well as mental things. I was surprised by what happened to me. I developed a six-pack which I never had before. More important than that, however, is that you feel good doing something physically different from what you are used to in your job.
  6. You exercise your compassion and empathy. In almost every realm of life, people struggle and have difficulties. You can’t avoid it. When you are helping people you can listen and be there and be a positive force even without saying self-help mumbo jumbo. I had one teacher tell me once that you can improve people’s day just by being positive and who you are. So I would smile and maintain my equilibrium and as much as possible open my heart to the world. Yes, you do get hurt, but it’s a much easier and happier place to be than being closed off.
  7. Your perspective changes. It is hard to go back to your private apartment and the hundred things you take for granted and not feel gratitude. It would be very easy for any of us to have the problems that others have. Maybe some of our life and success is due to our choices, but a larger part seems to be luck. Our genetics, location, and so many things determine the scale of our quality of life. Life isn’t fair, but we have many things that we can be grateful for even with that unfairness.
  8. Stop consuming artificial garbage and instead value reality. I find it fascinating how people talk about how our values are being warped by the media, yet watch the media and entertainment anyway. TV/Internet and other forms of entertainment have hypnotized people into accepting things that are not helpful for them to believe. I am certainly guilty of this. Too often we judge people by their external selves, instead of who they are. We don’t treat people as individuals, but rather as stereotyped examples of a group. We need to stop and live our lives based on our values as we examine them.
  9. Nothing lasts forever. People who have problems solve their problems. People who are rich become poor and become rich. Life is constantly in flux. Nothing stays the same forever. We have to let go of our human desire to control that which we can not control. We can only control ourselves, and that is all we need to focus on.
  10. Enjoy the moment. We only have the moment, and our future is uncertain. You can certainly plan for the future, but you have to focus on the moment. If you can be present with everyone you are talking to, and just focus on them and listen, you will have done the greatest thing that you can do in life.
See also  Sharpie pens has great customer service