Submitted by Susanne Bacon.
Volunteering always was something more rewarding to me than a nuisance. Though in Germany it had way less meaning to me, and I was hardly able to do any once I was a full-time journalist. But even at school camps, I found it more fun to help dry the dishes or cut onions for 60 kids and teachers than to play the umptieth game of table tennis without really connecting. Whereas you forge bonds while crying over ten pounds of hot onions with a couple of other volunteers, believe me. One summer as a teenager, I also helped at a summer vacation day camp for a few bucks – does that count as volunteering?
When I came over here, volunteering meant integration to me. It meant becoming part of a bigger concept, paying forward, but also getting back friendship and neighborliness. Nobody except my husband and some of his friends had been knowing I was coming over, after all. So, nobody was exactly rolling out a red carpet, offer me a job on arrival, or anything similar. Neither did I expect that.
But, one day I found this door hanger at our front door, recruiting new members for a local historical museum and asking whether I was interested in volunteering. I was not sure that I had the capability of doing what they were expecting. It was a historical museum, after all, and my knowledge of local history was only recently gained from a couple of books and websites. But, lo and behold, I was invited to become a docent and got trained. I was invited to join their Education Committee also. Later, I was asked to become the office manager (which position I filled for a while). And for almost all of the past six years, I have been a trustee with the museum as well.
Also, I filled in a civilian volunteer position as the liaison between military families and a local squadron command for a couple of years. I will never forget the day the commander asked me in and offered me the position, and she didn’t care at all that I – at that time – was still a German citizen with only a US green card. It was an immense honor to me, and quite a few friendships I made back then are holding to this day, military and civilian.
These days, I’m wearing another head. I have been asked by the organizers of the 6th Annual Lakewood Film, Arts, and Book Festival to help create and coordinate the September event’s first author/book section. It is fun being asked as one of the exhibiting authors and to be able to bring to the table what I imagine also the other exhibiting authors might need. It’s a lot of work – but the best reward will be when the doors open and everything runs as smoothly as can be.
Looking back on my volunteering tasks in Germany and those here, there are some differences. My tasks over there were minor as a school kid. And later, with 14-hour-days, work-weekends and lots of traveling, I simply didn’t have the time or energy to volunteer anymore. Over here, I had lots and lots of time on my hands. It’s becoming less and less again, as I’m writing on a regular basis again, of course. But counting myself as semi-retired, I find that volunteering is a mighty good opportunity for any teenager or adult who can cut him- or herself loose for a couple of hours a week to achieve a greater goal that helps a community. Looking around, I hardly see anybody in my circle of friends who doesn’t volunteer. Overseas, it would have been a different story.
Ah yes, and then there are the awards volunteers get recognized with over here. Not sure they are handed out as freely (but also as heart-felt) over in Germany as they are here. In my very first year I received one as part of a group that had a major impact on the museum program. Later I, still a German citizen, received US military awards on the squadron level, but also on that of an entire Air Force Base.
I have to admit that all of these awards fill me with pride and with gratitude. But the one thing that even feels better is that volunteering has made me part of programs and concepts that helped others and changed things in communities. To wrap it up in a nutshell: Volunteering is as much for others as it is for yourself. And it’s never become clearer to me anywhere else than in my new home.