Finding My Volunteer Identity


August 14, 2016 by Jean

volunteer line-upWhen I was working, I never could find the time to do community work as a volunteer. During one period, I did serve on the board of a local domestic violence/sexual assault agency, but I found being a board member more stressful than satisfying and I was relieved to give it up after a decade.

When I imagined my retirement, I always imagined volunteering as an important part of it, an opportunity to finally become active in causes that I care about. I knew the research showed that those who don’t volunteer during their working years don’t usually become volunteers in retirement, but I assumed (as people so often do) that I would be an exception. When my attempts to take up volunteer work during my first year of retirement fell flat (see Kissing Volunteer Frogs), I wondered if I was on my way to confirming that research finding.

In my second year of retirement, however, I feel as though I have found my volunteer identity. Instead of looking for worthy causes or “less fortunate” people to help, I’ve been following my own passions and using skills that I enjoy practicing. My first step in this direction came when I took my first course at the local Senior College and learned that the courses are taught by volunteers. This was a no-brainer for me; I love teaching, and by offering a course, I could make a contribution to the success of a program that I benefit from. I will offer the course I taught last year again this fall, and I plan to develop a second course for the Senior College next year.

Becoming a Master Gardener Volunteer also involved following my passions and helping myself as well as others. I have long wanted to take the Master Gardener course. Like many who apply for Master Gardener training, my motivation had less to do with volunteering than with gaining the horticultural knowledge that the course provides. My primary volunteer activity, working on the Home Garden Answer Line at my county’s Cooperative Extension office, is another instance of helping others by helping myself. Fielding other gardeners’ questions involves doing research and learning about new plants and unfamiliar insects or plant pathologies. In the process, I deepen my own knowledge, and I get great satisfaction from providing people with the information they need to address a gardening concern.

I was less enthused about my other Master Gardener Volunteer project, helping a local women’s center with growing herbs for cooking and medicinal uses. While I grow a few herbs to use in my own cooking, I knew little about growing them on a larger scale or about medicinal uses. But the Master Gardener Volunteer coordinator for my county felt it was important for me to get out of the office and get some field experience. I have learned a lot about herbs in the past few months, and I have also learned that I can tailor a volunteer experience to take advantage of my strengths and skills. When I contacted the director of the women’s center, I learned that my contact at the organization would be a student intern from a local college who would be doing the hands-on work of growing and processing herbs, and that my role would be to provide her with guidance. When I met the intern for the first time, it turned out that she was a double major in Sociology and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies – the two subjects that I had taught. That gave us an instant rapport, which only deepened when she learned that, as a young faculty member at her college (before she was born!), I had helped to found what was then a Women’s Studies program and that one of her Sociology professors had been my student. I quickly fell into a student-teacher relationship with her, adopting the coaching style that I have always used in one-on-one work with students. It turned out that I wasn’t as far outside my comfort zone as I thought.

As I’ve become more comfortable with how volunteer work fits into my identity, I’ve taken on some other volunteer commitments – for example, showing up to help with some special events at a local public garden. I’ve also become an appointed member of my town’s Conservation Commission, making a contribution as a citizen by combining my skill at committee work with an issue that I care deeply about.

I no longer worry that I’ll never find the right volunteer activity for me. Once I let go of the idea that volunteering was something I would do by giving of myself to help “unfortunate others” who are different from me, I discovered that I could make many valuable contributions while doing things I love and also enriching my own life. Now it’s just a matter of picking and choosing so that I don’t get overcommitted.

2 thoughts on “Finding My Volunteer Identity

  1. Jean R. says:

    You’ve definitely found the volunteer formula that works for you and your skill-set. How cool is that!

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

Please join me as I step into my future.

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