The Give and Take of Being a Volunteer

Good deeds may promote good health and skills. All you need to do is step up.
Published July 11, 2016

Most likely you’ve heard calls to action for volunteering like “it’s better to give than to receive.” “Think globally, act locally.” And, “do good while doing well.” Giving to others — in the form of time, sweat, support, and smiles — gives back to you in amazing ways that may have a positive impact on your health. Consider:

  • Research shows that giving to others may be linked to lower rates of depression and a higher degree of life satisfaction.
  • Compared with people who have never volunteered, those who have considered themselves significantly happier, according to a study published in Social Science and Medicine.
  • Regular volunteers may have higher self-esteem, be more satisfied with their lives, and be physically healthier, according to a University of Michigan study.
  • And most interesting of all: People who volunteer may live longer than those who don’t, suggests research published by the American Psychological Association.

Here you’ll find lots of “active” volunteering options. So read on! We bet you’re feeling better already.

What you give: Your time, sweat and energy

What you get: A workout that benefits heart and soul

If you’re looking to move your body while giving your time, the opportunities can be endless — especially if you count charity runs. A good starting place might be Volunteer Match, which allows you to research worthy causes as if you’re browsing job listings. Here are some other terrific options, depending on what you like to do:


You’re a runner. 

Check out: Achilles International. They buddy-up able runners with a disabled runner in a marathon or to help a wounded vet master a hand-crank wheelchair for an upcoming race.

You like working with children.

Check out: Project Fit America, which aims to create new and sustainable opportunities for children to be more active as part of their school day.  Also, Walk & Bike to School helps you organize a Walking School Bus program or a Walk to School Day event, which connects adults with groups of children to walk to school. 

You like to swim.

Check out: Swim for MS, in which individuals or teams set a goal to swim a certain amount of laps, distance, or time during one day or over a set period of time (i.e., swim 500 laps in 30 days to raise $1,000). Not so competitive? On the website you’ll find other ways to assist those with multiple sclerosis (MS) at a local pool.

You like to walk.

Check out: Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation hosts many activities, including Alex’s Million Mile, a monthlong event each September to honor National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. 

You enjoy spending time outdoors.

Check out: Keep America Beautiful, the nation’s largest community-improvement organization. Breathe fresh air while you beautify parks and recreation areas, clean seashores and waterways, handle recycling collections, or plant trees and flowers. 


What you give: Your vacation days

What you get: Memories that will last longer than your tan

“There are many ways to get involved while on vacation, no matter what your interests are,” says Christian Clark, director of USA Projects Abroad. The organization places volunteers around the globe, in programs ranging from journalism, animal care, and business development to conservation and more. 

Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer Guidebooks, has used Global Volunteers to line up vacations for her family. The nonprofit considers itself a resource to communities and will only take on projects when invited to by local people. “They have rigorous standards,” Frommer says. Also, VolunTourism can assist you in putting together a trip based on your destination, interests, and skills.

Depending on your idea of a perfect destination, these volunteer opportunities might be for you:

You want to hit the beach.

Enjoy the beach while you work to save the sea turtles in Costa Rica.

You want to explore national parks.

Help a National Parks Service ranger care for our precious properties, such as the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park or Zion National Park. As an added perk, if you donate 250 service hours with a federal agency that participates, you can get a free annual volunteer pass to indulge your park lust year-round.

You’re up for anything.

Strap on a tool belt and go wherever you’re needed. Help build and repair houses for families in need, either locally or far away, with Habitat for Humanity. Find your local affiliate here.


What you give: Your skills and expertise  

What you get:  The chance to explore your passions

If you want to use your volunteer work as time to expand your horizons and share your interests, consider the following opportunities to give back:

You want to reveal your kitchen secrets. 

Volunteer as: A cooking-class instructor or assistant for Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters. The organization teaches people how to shop for and prepare healthy meals on a limited budget. “Our volunteers learn something in each cooking class or shopping tour they lead,” says Alicia McCabe, who heads the program in Massachusetts.

You want to hone your art appreciation. 

Volunteer as: A budding Michelangelo. Restore art in Puglia, Italy, and gain experience in conserving and restoring ancient frescoes, canvas, wood, stone, and decorative plaster.  

You want to share your love of reading.

Volunteer by: Passing on your love of reading to charities, schools, and libraries serving at-risk children and adults by recycling your magazines; assessing local literacy needs; or collecting magazines to deliver to these programs.


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