Volunteer work is the backbone of any community. It’s been a part of our society since America’s inception, à la Benjamin Franklin’s volunteer firehouse in 1736. Now it’s 2018, and the selfless intentions of our forefathers still ring true across the U.S. While the main beneficiaries of volunteer work are those in need, recent studies show that volunteers have just as much to gain for their efforts, with possible mental and physical health benefits.
Research from the Corporation for National & Community Service suggests that people who regularly volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability and lower rates of depression than those who do not volunteer. Of course, there are a multitude of factors used to gauge how much one will actually benefit from volunteering.
The mental and social health boosts gained from participating in volunteer work are undeniable. Specifically for students, these health benefits look like increased social and political participation, lower levels of stress, higher self-esteem and less risk of disease. Students that volunteer are happier, better connected to their communities and, overall, more satisfied with and in control of their lives. As mental health continues to serve as a growing concern for the youth of the nation, instilling these elements of positive growth at a young age can really make a difference.
In fact, one school district in Rochester is setting the bar for student involvement in their community.
Pittsford Central School District, in the town of Pittsford, New York, is an exemplar of a student body fully integrated with its community. Julie Wittig, who manages career exploration and community service for Pittsford says it’s been incredibly rewarding working with her students over the years. Although community service is not required to graduate, many students participate because they find the sense of purpose satisfying.
“I find that this generation coming up, they are so in-tune with health and wellness,” Wittig says.
You can’t deny her claim. The Pittsford community service club is partnered with the Pittsford Rotary club, but several other volunteer groups exist within the school, including Rochester Global Connections and Rochester Kids.
The Rochester Global Connections group meets with international representatives — some of them government officials — to demonstrate volunteerism, share how their community inspires a culture of service and hopefully encourage their visitors to implement volunteer efforts in their own countries. Last March, Rochester Global Connections had its most diverse event to date, including guests from 13 countries.
Rochester Kids runs the ROCKidsCONNECT student exchange program, which brings together the urban and suburban youths of Rochester to learn from one another and create a tightly knit culture. Griffin Cross, a Sutherland High School senior says this about the program:
“Together, our ROCKidsCONNECT community of diverse learners develops cultural competencies; recognizing similarities among and differences between kids from various racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Cross says. “ROCKidsCONNECT facilitates regular interactions and allows kids to figure out how to build meaningful relationships.”
These clubs, along with efforts from groups like Reality Check, the Eagle Scouts and the robotics club, give students at Pittsford an immense amount of opportunity to get out and volunteer. But are these students getting the most out of their efforts? Are they even aware of the possible health benefits that come with this active lifestyle?
Wittig says they've found the benefits to be immediate. Not only is volunteering beneficial for mental health and self-esteem, students gain leadership skills, as well. The Harvard journal by Stephanie Watson linked 200 hours of volunteering a year to lower blood pressure, but the research conducted by CNCS claimed as little as 100 hours can be enough to exhibit positive change.
In terms of service hours, Pittsford students have little to worry about. It was reported that Pittsford graduating seniors had an average of 35,000 cumulative volunteer hours collected since sixth grade. Wittig points out that some students don’t even report all of their service hours.
It is clear enough from the student testimonies that the work they do is filled with purpose and good intentions. Kyle Legg, a Sutherland High School sophomore, is very active around his school and helps with a range of things from counseling a computer summer camp, to managing audio-visual effects for the school theater. Legg is also a member of the Robotics club and is involved with a service learning project for after-school kids at the YMCA.
“Community service has allowed me to help others, reach out to new people, share my passions and teach others,” Legg says. “My favorite part is when I teach a kid something that makes them go to their parent and say, ‘Look at this! Isn’t it cool?’”
It’s clear that students at Pittsford schools are passionate about the work they do. Whether they see it or not, the benefits are there. More evidence from the CNCS indicates that those who volunteer at an earlier stage in life are less likely to suffer from ill health later in life.
To be at such a formative stage in life and receive the benefits of volunteering is quite an advantage. Volunteer work increases your social and political participation, increases trust in others, reduces stress, increases self-esteem and adds a new level of purpose to your life. The mental and physical benefits of volunteering will obviously vary from person to person of all ages and backgrounds. But young or old, there are people out there making a difference for their community and for themselves.