The gift of you: Volunteering provides health benefits, increases longevity

Ariel Panjwani, left, and Greta Hunziker enjoy some sightseeing at the end of their service in Ireland at Giant’s Causeway.

Special to the Times

Ariel Panjwani, left, and Greta Hunziker enjoy some sightseeing at the end of their service in Ireland at Giant’s Causeway.

Edna Ligon spent 21 years of her working life in the dietary department at St. Joseph's Hospital. Now, in retirement, she's back in the kitchen — as a volunteer at New Salem Baptist Church in Tampa.

A member since 1957, she does the church's grocery shopping and manages 16 volunteers who prepare weekly Sunday meals and special fare for weddings and funerals.

"I have bad knees and can't sit still too long,'' she said. "Keeping busy helps me stay well, helps me get going."

Volunteering is indeed good for your health, concluded a 2007 study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency. It reported that giving 100 hours a year, about two hours a week, lowered the rate of depression and increased longevity.

"Volunteering brings benefits like increased self-worth and self-esteem," explains Dr. Fengyan Tang of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work. She has published numerous papers on how volunteerism benefits the health of older Americans.

"Volunteering is a positive circle," Tang says. "People who are healthy, volunteer. And volunteers maintain their health. It improves the quality of life and, to a larger extent, society."

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The Corporation for National and Community Service releases an annual report that tracks trends in volunteering, such as who volunteers, how much, and where.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the recession, 1.6 million more Americans volunteered in 2009 than in 2008, the largest spike in volunteerism since 2003.

According to the report, only 20.9 percent of Floridians volunteer, ranking the state 47th in the nation. But Tampa Bay area residents are more generous; the region ranks 28th among large cities, with 26.6 percent of residents volunteering for causes they deem worthwhile.

Who's more likely to volunteer? Rates tend to go up with education and income and down with poverty and age.

"They have fewer resources and fewer social support networks,'' Tang said. Yet these are the very people who could benefit most from participating. "Volunteering makes them feel appreciated, which makes people feel better about themselves."

To tap into the pool of potential volunteers, Tang advises organizations to collaborate with senior centers and reach out to churches whose members have a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

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The toughest group to get volunteering is teens and young adults. In Florida, about 19 percent of people ages 16 to 24 volunteer. (In top-ranking Utah, more than 40 percent of its citizens, youth included, volunteer, likely due to the influence of the Mormon church.)

Many school programs encourage and even require volunteer service. At St. Petersburg's Eckerd College, students and staff volunteered more than 73,000 hours last school year, up 4,000 hours from the previous year.

Brian MacHarg is Eckerd's director of service learning, which he describes as a teaching method that "combines meaningful service with analysis." Its two goals are "to teach and learn, especially on the university level or in academia. Also, to do good in the community."

Greta Hunziker, 20, is a junior at Eckerd. The political science major is interested in studying history and how it pertains to modern conflicts. Hunziker spent last spring break in Northern Ireland volunteering at a Belfast trauma center. She kept a journal and wrote a paper on her experiences, then spent her 10-week summer break there, too.

"I worked alongside facilitators with people who were injured, lost relatives," she explained.

Her friends at other colleges around the country are "not really involved in their communities, much less abroad,'' she said. "People should be out there spending their time in a beneficial way."

MacHarg says that he has seen many students benefit personally from their service.

"Without it, students are otherwise directionless, attracted to negative behaviors," he observed.

"The whole thing is about connectedness. On campus there is absolutely no privacy, but a lot of loneliness. Service is important in fostering a sense of connectedness and meaning."

Dawn Morgan Elliott is a freelance journalist who blogs about volunteerism at TampaDoGooder.Blogspot.com.

Give the gift of you

If you're interested in volunteering at your favorite nonprofit or community organization, get in touch with the volunteer coordinator and ask how you can be involved. For ideas on where you can volunteer, check out the United Way's Hands on Tampa site at www.volunteertampabay.com. Or go to www.Idealist.org and search by your interest/region.

The gift of you: Volunteering provides health benefits, increases longevity 11/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 5, 2010 5:30am]

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