Daily Archives: 3 January 2011

Being emotionally ready to volunteer – or to continue volunteering

Culture Matters is an online curriculum specifically developed by the Peace Corps to help newly-accepted members acquire some of the knowledge and skills they will need to work successfully and respectfully in other cultures. It’s not just about cultural sensitive or cultural awareness, however; it’s also about knowing what to do when one is personally stressed out, feeling overwhelmed, etc. It’s a combination of self-evaluation and self-strategizing. It not only helps to build volunteers’ awareness of how to handle a variety of challenges, it also might help to screen out people who are not emotionally nor mentally prepared, or not emotionally resilient enough, to serve overseas.

Even if your volunteers are not going overseas, they can face feelings of isolation, stress, even fear, especially if they are in high responsibility or high-stress roles, such as

  • counseling women who have been abused (including rape victims)
  • fighting fires
  • providing emergency health care
  • participating in search and rescue missions
  • counseling low-income people regarding financial management
  • repeatedly communicating about a controversial issue that often incites hostility among some audiences
  • working in a facility that houses abandoned animals
  • mentoring high school students
  • serving food to people who could not eat otherwise
  • working with clients in a hospice program
  • helping at a free clinic
  • leading entire teams for a high-profile project
  • providing services to people who have lost everything to a fire or natural disaster
  • providing services to crime victims
  • training people in activities related to any of the above

Volunteers in these and other situations may need mental and emotional health support — activities that will relieve stress, address emotional conflicts, and help them explore how to balance work, volunteering, family and social activities. Otherwise, you risk volunteer burnout, or volunteers providing sub-par service.

Creating such an online curriculum for your own volunteers can be as easy as finding or recruiting a volunteer to interview current and previous volunteers, compiling their feedback into a draft curriculum, and then asking the volunteers to offer edits and suggestions. What a great assignment for someone looking for an internship as a part of their university studies, a retired human resources professional looking to volunteer for a limited task at your organization, someone who wants a project that will look great on their résumé, and on and on.
As part of creating your online curriculum for volunteers to help them handle stress, map resources in your community that can support your volunteers’ health and mental well-being. These can include:

  • communities of faith and secular/ethical societies
  • debt counseling services
  • for-profit and non-profit exercise clubs (private health clubs, the YMCA and YWCA, community pools, T’ai Chi clubs in the park, yoga classes, sports clubs. etc.)
  • centers for aging/senior support
  • free and low-cost health clinics

Also, develop a list of “escape hatches” — lists of of free or very low-cost places nearby where your local volunteers can get away, relax and recharge. This can be a list of nearby city, state and national parks, a list of cinemas in the area, places to get a massage, a manicure, a pedicure or a facial, dance studios, golf courses (even miniature golf courses), art museums, and on and on. If you visit each of these places, you may be able to establish discounts with these organizations for your volunteers.

Provide information about these resources (web site address, physical address, hours of operation, etc.) to all volunteers. Provide the information via a regular group meeting, and/or via your online community. Put brochures for these resources in a place where volunteers take breaks. You can also use the information in one-on-one situations, but the information should be provided to all volunteers, not just those you think might need it.

Provide information on how to reach these places by mass transit and by bike — or provide web site URLs where your volunteers can find this information.

Compiling all of the above information and putting it together on an internal web site or on paper, or gathering brochures from all these various different sites and making a display of them in a staff break room, is a great task for a volunteer.

Even if most of your volunteers don’t take advantage of these free and low-cost services, think of the message you are sending to your volunteers by providing this information: that you value them and their health, that you understand that their volunteering activities can be stressful, and that your organization CARES. What a powerful form of volunteer recognition