Helping others didn’t get passed down to me from earlier generations; I didn’t receive any formal guidance or modeling. It’s not that I was taught that giving is a conditional thing where you expect something in return, we just didn’t talk about it one way or the other.
What I do have are fearful memories associated with helping others. I would be walking with my parents down the streets of New York City, dressed up and holding my mother’s hand as we embarked on our annual New Year’s Day Broadway theater date.
As we passed by the people sitting on the sidewalk begging for change, I was rushed past and told not to look. I heard these people referred to as bums or beggars, who lived off society, and I came to fear them. Occasionally my father would give one of them some money, but I never understood why he did this some times and not others. We now know that many homeless people have mental health disorders or are victims of a culture where disadvantaged suffer.
Even as a young child I always wanted very much to help people, but was met with the attitude that there was no reason to volunteer if you could be doing something for pay. Though I didn’t have support or praise from my family of origin about being philanthropic, I did from my former husband and friends in my community.
Over the years I’ve volunteered much time, skill, and money to my children’s pre-school and schools. I’ve served food for the Coalition for the Homeless and volunteered at religious and community events. I give presentations or am a speaker whenever asked and have mentored women in recovery, students, and colleagues. I give interviews to the media so I can be a resource for the community.
Volunteering has taught me as much as or more about people than all of my professional training and experience. As I said goodbye and handed them a package of food to take with them, homeless men and women shared extraordinary stories that broke all the assumptions I’d held on to from my childhood.
It’s only recently that I’ve really come to understand that you truly get when you give. One time I was feeling down about not knowing the next time I was going to see all three of my kids. The telephone rang and it was someone asking me if I wanted to cook a meal for someone who just had surgery for breast cancer. I said yes, made the meal and delivered it later that week. I still missed my kids, but I also felt like I was helpful to someone who was in need at the time. I felt grounded again.
On another day, the White Picket Fence Counseling Center team participated in a walk to raise funds for NEDA. It was a fun day, when we got to share anecdotes about conferences and fundraising and spend time together, which we rarely get to do.
In early April I ran/walked in a 5K for my daughter’s sorority at UVA, raising money for breast cancer research and awareness. Out of hundreds of participants, I was one of 12 who wore the pink survivor shirt. It was a moving experience (as evidenced by my tears in the photo!).
I never expected to be so moved by the passion of everyone else doing the walk and raising funds, or someone calling out, “Oh look, she’s a survivor!” as I passed by. People noticed, people cared. The high energy of these amazing young college women was contagious amongst all the participants and donors.
Service can be very personal and informal, not necessarily part of an organized effort or event. Holding a door for someone, smiling at someone, or just listening without interrupting or offering advice, can be service. Or be like a Boy Scout and help someone cross the street.
If you haven’t tried the recovery tool of service, wherever you are on your path, go ahead and see what it does for you. I would love to hear about your experiences.