Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tis Better to Give than to Receive

While speaking to my mother last week, she mentioned that she finally had her hallway and staircase walls repainted--and it didn't cost her anything at all. How was this possible, I asked? She explained that her boyfriend Ken and a work colleague of his had developed a relationship over the years of lending each other their expertise from time-to-time when needed (he is a professional carpenter and his friend is a professional painter). When Ken learned that his friend's wife would be away for Thanksgiving and that he'd be at home with nothing to do, Ken asked if he'd be able to come over to help pain my mom's walls. He happily agreed and together they got the job done in one afternoon, and likely enjoyed each other's company as well.

This kind of "grow roots in a community, know thy neighbor, and participate actively in supporting those around you" mentality was felt strongly in American life in decades past, but may be dwindling in recent years as more folks turn their minds to making ends meet in this multi-year recession. Additionally, many now live in larger cities where the establishment of a supportive community can be more difficult--one's community isn't necessarily built by those living in the apartment next door a religious congregation or political activity. And we could mention the rise of the internet, with so many "virtual" ways to be in contact with people without any actual physical contact.

Strong communities are important for revitalizing cities and towns as well as fortifying the living standards and health of its residents. Studies show that being an active contributor to a community is important to psychological and physical well-being. A few years ago, the Corporation for National and Community Service conducted a review of recent research on the health benefits of volunteering. They published a number of valuable findings, including:
  • Volunteering leads to greater life satisfaction and lower rates of depression. Evidence indicates that volunteering has a positive effect on social psychological factors, such as a personal sense of purpose and accomplishment, and enhances a person's social networks to buffer stress and reduce disease risk.
  • Older volunteers are most likely to receive greater health benefits from volunteering. These benefits include improved physical and mental health and greater life satisfaction.
  • Individuals who volunteer live longer. Several longitudinal studies have found that those individuals who volunteer during the first wave of the survey have lower mortality rates at the second wave of the survey, even when taking into account such factors as physical health, age, socioeconomic status and gender. Researchers have also found that when patients with chronic or serious illness volunteer, they receive benefits beyond what can be achieved through medical care.  
All of this sounds great, but where can one get started with volunteering their time and in turn receiving the benefits that come along with community engagement? Here's the beautiful thing (and another slightly cliché saying)--"if you build it, they will come." That is, if you build a tool that helps people come together and help one another, folks will come out of the woodwork...

Take a look at "time banking." Time banking is the practice of doing helpful things for someone using your talents, expertise or just time. In return, you get to log these hours as a type of "time currency." Then, the next time you need help with a project, turn to a fellow time banker and spend your equity! While on its base level this is a great way to barter time for one's needs instead of paying for the service, Time Banks USA enunciates that it is about more than just the exchange of services they promote five core values:
  • Assets: We are all assets. Every human being has something to contribute.
  • Redefining Work: Some work is beyond price. Work has to be redefined to value whatever it takes to raise healthy children, build strong families, revitalize neighborhoods, make democracy work, advance social justice, make the planet sustainable. That kind of work needs to be honored, recorded and rewarded.
  • Reciprocity: Helping works better as a two-way street. The question: “How can I help you?” needs to change so we ask: “How can we help each other build the world we both will live in?”
  • Social Networks: We need each other. Networks are stronger than individuals. People helping each other reweave communities of support, strength & trust. Community is built upon sinking roots, building trust, creating networks. Special relationships are built on commitment.
  • Respect: Every human being matters. Respect underlies freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and everything we value. Respect supplies the heart and soul of democracy. When respect is denied to anyone, we all are injured. We must respect where people are in the moment, not where we hope they will be at some future point.
Time banking, with active groups in 22 countries and six continents is a well-organized way for folks to get involved with helping one another while receiving both personal satisfaction and tangible rewards for doing so. Watch this video of the Lathrup Village Time Bank, which won the 2009 District 1 Michigan Municipal League's "Community Spirit" award:

There are also other, longstanding ways of giving your time and energy--neighborhood or advocacy groups and community centers focused on improving communities and their inhabitants. A great model for this is the Westcott Community Center in Syracuse, New York. Their mission is:

  • to provide a safe, accessible community space for activities and programs that meet community needs 
  • to strengthen and unite the community by bringing together its diverse elements  
  • to raise consciousness through public education, art, music, culture, craft, communication, civic discourse and debate  
  • to advance the full inclusion of all persons in the community.

The Westcott Community Center is a cornerstone of the neighborhood, offering a lecture & concert series, a community art gallery and a computer lab & associated computer courses. The Center also offers extensive programming to help community members earn their GRE, find employment, participate in exercise and social events for seniors, beautify their neighborhood (see their annual bulb exchange, at which the photo by Mark Rupert was taken) and foster a close neighborhood bond. Members can offer their time and skills to these and other projects.

So during this holiday season and with the New Year approaching, make yourself a resolution to become more involved in the community. Join a Time Bank, look up service opportunities on All For Good or Volunteer Match, get young people active through Do Something, or learn how to create your own project with the toolkits provided by President Obama's United We Serve initiative. Or simply google for volunteer opportunities in your city that appeal to your specific interests or talents.

You can improve your physical environment, provide relief to specific individual members and make your community a more pleasant place to live--all while improving your health, your mood and even your wallet.

 *As with everything else in life, be safe.

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