Volunteer Nation
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Volunteer Nation

Call it a compassion boom: In these troubled economic times, more and more American women are reaching out to help others in need. Meet four LHJ readers who began doing community service for the first time this year -- and discovered the rewards of giving back and making a difference.

Mentoring Prisoners' Kids

Lisa Anderson, 50
Newport Beach, California

What I do
I spend about two hours a week with an 11-year-old girl whose father is in jail. We go the beach, hit the zoo, get manicures together, or see a movie. Sometimes we just hang out: She really loves to eat and play Hangman.

Why I do it
Over the years I've gone to fundraisers for various charities. But I wanted to do more than just go to fancy dinners and balls; I decided it was time to do something hands-on. I signed up for this mentoring program and promised that I'd work with this girl for a year. But I've already decided to stick with it; I want to be involved in her life for as long as I can.

Unexpected challenge
It can be hard to get in touch with her. Her mother is on government assistance, lives in a high-crime area, and doesn't always have a phone. Several times I've had to get other volunteers to help me find her. But kids need consistency, so I make sure we get together. I want her to know she's important to me.

Personal payoff
My own father has been in and out of prison for the past 25 years. Even though I was an adult when this happened it was still devastating. Before I started volunteering I was too embarrassed to talk about it. But once I started telling my new pal that she is not her father, I realized it was true for me, too.

Helping Homeless Teens

Uyladia Jarmon-Colley, 35
Atlanta, Georgia

What I do
I'm involved with a program that provides assistance for kids who are living on the street. I walk around at night looking for young people who are sleeping in parks, passageways, or bus depots and I try to make sure they get the services they need.

Why I do it
I was laid off last year and needed something to keep me busy while I job hunted. As a new mom I felt strongly about doing something to help kids. My friend is involved in this program and loves it, so I decided to give it a try.

A night's work
I go up to kids and ask them, "How can I make your life better tonight?" Their answers are always different: Maybe they need a hot shower, a safe place to sleep, or a healthy meal. We try to get them what they need. Sometimes these kids just need someone to talk to. They've got lots of problems: Some of them are addicted to drugs; others are fleeing abusive homes. We meet their immediate needs first, but ultimately our goal is to get them off the streets.

Greatest insight
I'm unemployed, and I'm the mother of a toddler. You might think that's enough stress in my life, so why add any more? But volunteering has actually made my life less stressful. It helps me realize that I'm much better off than I thought. My budget may be tight, but I can always go to the refrigerator and find something to eat. Many of these kids can't do that. These days I count my blessings.

Teaching Literacy

Gayle Elleven, 40
Fort Worth, Texas

What I do
For three hours every week I tutor adults who read on a second- to sixth-grade level. We use books, magazines, and Web sites -- anything that engages them and helps build their reading skills.

Why I do it
A friend once told me that she thinks that educational charities are most effective because they help break the cycle of poverty. So when I decided this year that I was ready to do something, I went online and found volunteermatch.org. I keyed in info like my hometown, "women," and "education," and this program popped up. It seemed perfect!

The big picture
I think a lot of people see children as their legacy, their way of giving back to the world. My husband and I don't have kids, so I wanted to do something to make a meaningful contribution. I decided volunteer work would be a great way for me to create a legacy of my own.

Success story
One of the women I tutored is now taking college courses and working toward getting a degree. But really, all my students inspire me. With so many reasons to skip tutoring sessions -- jobs, kids, chores, and tons of other responsibilities -- they overcome all the obstacles and find a way to get here.

The real benefit
The people I work with get a lot out of the program, but so do I. It's rewarding to know you are helping people improve their lives.

Coaching for the Special Olympics

Heather Lodini, 26
Cromwell, Connecticut

What I do
I've worked with athletes ranging in age from 6 to 60. So far I've coached the track and field, bowling, and basketball teams, usually for about an hour or so a week.

Why I do it
Last year I turned 25 and I had just moved to a new city and was working at a new job. All the changes made me look at my life and I decided I needed to do something to feel more fulfilled. I ran a half-marathon. I remodeled my kitchen. But I still didn't feel satisfied, so I decided to start volunteering.

My inspiration
My Aunt Sharon, who lived across the street when I was a kid, had Down syndrome. I'd bring my friends over to visit her and every time she would pull out her Special Olympics medals. I remember thinking, "What's the big deal? I have trophies in my room, too." It wasn't until I was older that I realized how much harder she had to work for those awards.

Personal payoff
If I've had a crummy day at work, I'm tempted to just go home and watch television. But I've committed to coaching, so sometimes I have to force myself to go -- and I'm always glad I did. I'm brought to tears when I see the look of joy in my athletes' faces. They're so thrilled to succeed at something as simple as rolling a bowling ball and knocking down a few pins. It's always the highlight of my week.

Favorite memory
My first stint was working registration for a "Penguin Plunge" where people jumped into a 30 degrees F. lake to raise money for the Special Olympics. I was surrounded by hundreds of volunteers who were totally committed to helping people with special needs. There was so much positive energy that I felt truly inspired.

No excuses
I've seen the challenges people with disabilities face, so don't tell me that giving up a Saturday morning is hard. Life shouldn't be about us all the time.

Jill Biden Talks to Us

The vice president's wife talked to LHJ about her top priority.

LHJ: What draws women to volunteer work?
Jill Biden: Everyone gets inspired by something different. A lot of volunteers are motivated by specific needs that they see in their community and a desire to fill them. I know that's the case with me: I first started helping educate women about breast cancer after four of my friends had the disease, one of whom died. Another reason is that adults want to set a positive example for our youth. I know for me it's important to inspire my children and grandchildren to get involved and give back in their communities.

LHJ: Are there any personal rewards of service?
Jill Biden: There are so many. I've developed some truly wonderful friendships through my volunteer activities. I also think you learn a lot -- about yourself, your community, and the larger world -- when you step out of your own situation and see first-hand what your neighbors and fellow Americans are facing. Being active in the larger community makes you more connected, more empathetic, and grateful. I always emerge from service activities feeling inspired, optimistic, and motivated.

LHJ: What causes are most important to you?
Jill Biden: Michelle Obama and I have both been focused on helping military families. For several years I've been active in a group called Delaware Boots on the Ground, which works with service members and their families. Our son Beau is in the Army National Guard, and I know firsthand how important it is for families to feel supported.

LHJ: How do you encourage volunteerism?
Jill Biden: I always say that you should start from what you love and know: If you like to read, consider tutoring or doing a story hour at a children's hospital. If you're a gardener, use your talents at the local community center or nursing home. Whether you're an accountant or a handyman or a lawyer, you could offer an hour a week of your skills to help a military family whose child or spouse is deployed. These simple acts of kindness can make such a huge difference. And when volunteers reach out to others they will find so much more meaning in their own lives.


Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2010.