I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer locally, nationally and even internationally. As you might imagine, they are very different experiences.
Some of the benefits of volunteering locally include supporting nearby communities and fostering relationships with other volunteers. I’m fortunate to work for a company, Voya Financial, that provides 40 hours per year of volunteer time away (paid time off to volunteer during work hours). It’s a great team-building exercise to get outside of the office walls and work side-by-side with co-workers for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.
While volunteering locally is beneficial to the nearby community and relatively easy to do, volunteering beyond my local community is a much different dynamic. My international volunteer experience has involved traveling to South Africa one or more times a year since 2008. I work with an organization called Mosaic, whose focus is supporting families that care for orphans or other vulnerable children by:
- Equipping the parents with jobs, training and facilitation to government programs.
- Supporting the children with access to quality education and after-school programming.
- Moving the family from a shack to a modest house.
I am proud to be involved with Mosaic, which has provided support to more than 70 parents and 225 orphans/vulnerable children.
As you can imagine, volunteering in South Africa certainly can take a person out of their comfort zone. Experiencing a different culture, different languages, different food (I’m a very picky eater), different amenities, a different level of poverty and more can be challenging. But the overall experience is something I look forward to and cherish each year.
My first two volunteer trips with Mosaic were as an individual contributor. But since 2010, I’ve been leading teams to South Africa, which has improved my leadership skills. The trips can be physically and mentally challenging, and there are many different personality types on each trip. I must use a wide range of techniques to prepare and organize the team before we leave, manage through the expected and unexpected challenges while on the trip, and help the team decompress afterward. These developing skill sets are ones I also use at work as I encounter many different personalities and expected and unexpected challenges in the corporate world.
One thing I did not expect to happen the first time I volunteered in South Africa is that it would become an annual retreat for me. Even with the challenges, the trips have become a haven from the daily grind of life. When I am there, I unplug from work and focus on being in the moment. It can take a few days to mentally unwind from work and the tasks that occupy our daily lives, but then I can really enjoy the experience.
Not only do I feel we are doing great things there, but my tank is refueled. I feel refreshed when I come back to work. It is true in many circumstances that people who give often feel like they get more in return. I can attest to this, and I can honestly say that volunteering on a local, national and international level has changed my life. I encourage others to do the same.