Many people suggest that doing volunteer work is a great way to open your heart to new experiences. I totally agree.

When I was in high school, I did volunteer work at two different places, helping out for about 50 hours at each place.

Working With Seniors

The first place was a convalescent home near LAX (Los Angeles Airport). I must have been 16 years old, since this was shortly after I learned to drive. I served as an assistant for the woman who was in charge of the place. Picture Gilda Radner after four cups of coffee.

I helped to facilitate various activities with the seniors at this place, including games and social events. Sometimes I talked one on one with people in their rooms. Other times I pushed people around in wheelchairs for their daily “exercise.”

I remember talking to one guy who had a world map on the wall of his room. He said, “Point to anywhere, and I’ll tell you about it.” I’d point to different countries, and he’d tell me of his travels there, some of them during World War II. I rather enjoyed that. He reminded me a little of my grandfather, who was stationed in Germany at the end of WWII.

Overall, I learned a lot from this experience, but I honestly didn’t enjoy it. Most of the seniors at this place seemed lonely and depressed. Some were unfriendly, withdrawn, and bitter and clearly didn’t want to be there. A few seemed mentally unstable. I was cautioned to steer clear of at least one person there.

The staff seemed overworked and unmotivated. I didn’t get the sense they wanted to be there either. I imagine it was just a job to them. No sense of life purpose was present as far as I could tell.

Often the staff treated the seniors like children. That was sad to see, but at the time, I just assumed they knew what they were doing.

During the time I was there (Friday afternoons for a few months), I don’t recall seeing any family members visit, but I might not have noticed if they did because I usually wasn’t near the front desk. But it’s safe to say that the people in this convalescent home didn’t have much social interaction with anyone but the staff and each other. And some of them didn’t like each other or the staff.

Most of the seniors there were very passive. They just went along with the program and didn’t resist. For me personally that lack of independent will was the most difficult thing to see. I could better understand the people who showed bursts of emotion on occasion.

Perhaps the biggest lesson for me was that I didn’t want to end my life in this manner. It seemed so sad to me that human beings should spend their last remaining years this way. Virtually no one there was really doing anything with their lives. They spent a lot of time watching old movies on TV. I got the sense that everyone was basically waiting to die. The convalescent home was essentially a holding cell before you hit the afterlife. Once you checked in, you’d eventually be leaving as a corpse.

This was a formative experience for me because it gave me a greater sense of taking personal responsibility for my long-term health — all the way to the grave. Some things may be out of our control, but most of those seniors didn’t really need to end up there. If they’d assumed 100% responsibility for their own health care from a young age, most could have been physically and mentally independent for years to come. I’d rather end up Jack LaLanne (age 94) than have my body falling apart at age 70.

You could blame the families for abandoning their elders, but I wouldn’t do that. I agree that many Americans have a long way to go in terms of how we treat our elders compared to the respect shown by some cultures, but I also think that respect must be earned. If you allow your mind and body to atrophy so badly that your family would rather pay thousands of dollars to make you someone else’s problem, who’s responsible? Ultimate responsibility always rests with you. Just consider for a careful moment or two where your current health decisions are leading you. Where will your body be at age 70, 80, 90?

Incidentally, this convalescent home was later written up in the local newspaper for reported health code violations. I didn’t know anything about health codes at the time, but none of the details in the newspaper report were surprising to me.

Working With Disabled Children

When I was 17, I volunteered at the James McBride School in L.A. This was a special education center for children with various disabilities. I figured I’d already worked with seniors, so I might as well try the other end of the age spectrum. This time I was a classroom assistant for pre-school kids. The kids were probably 3-4 years old.

Most of these kids wore special helmets because they tripped and fell down a lot. One child had cerebral palsy and spent most of the school day in a special contraption to support his body and head. Without it he was unable to hold himself up. He looked a bit emaciated because his muscles were so underdeveloped. He also drooled a lot. I really loved his spirit — his smile would totally light up the room. Just looking at him forced me to open my heart.

I absolutely loved working with these kids. They were so alive and full of joy — the way people naturally act before social conditioning takes root. I enjoyed helping them learn shapes like circles, squares, and triangles. They already knew their colors better than I did. 🙂

After the pre-school kids went home, I ate lunch, and then I monitored afternoon recess activities with the grade-school kids. This mainly involved helping them shoot hoops and making sure they didn’t get into trouble. Some of the kids had difficulty managing their emotions, so it didn’t take much to set them off and initiate a fight. I remember that one kid with Down Syndrome sometimes had issues getting along with the other kids; we just had to make sure his tremendous energy was being channeled in a positive way.

I still recall some of the pre-school kid’s names — Steven, Candice, Joey, and Ricky.

Steven was a brown-haired kid who took an instant liking to me once he discovered we had the same first name. In his eyes that made us instant best friends. It was a Festivus miracle!

Candice was a short, sassy blend of Queen Latifa and Rosie Perez. The only problem was that while she was chewing you out, she’d often lose her balance and fall down. For an adult that might have been embarrassing. But Candice would simply get back up, straighten her helmet, and continue sassing you without missing a beat.

It’s funny to realize that those kids are now in their mid-20s. I wonder if any of them are reading my blog today. 🙂

Many years later, Erin did some substitute teaching at James McBride. It was a very challenging experience for her. She was working with older kids though, not the pre-schoolers.

Working with those kids made me more interested in having kids of my own. Before that I was definitely a no-kids person. This experience didn’t push me over the edge completely, but it definitely softened me up.

Watching kids learning shapes and colors reminded me of my experience at James McBride. At the preschool level, the way “normal” kids learn and play together isn’t much different than the behavior of children coping with various disabilities. Kids are kids, and self-acceptance comes naturally to us. For a young child, dealing with a disability is just life. It’s only later on that society teaches those same beautiful children that just because they’re different, they’re somehow broken.

Being normal is overrated anyway. If you live a “normal” life, your reward may be a stint at a convalescent home.

This year I read a book called The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal by Jonathan Mooney. The book is an insightful journey into the lives of people who are labeled disabled and the challenges they experience in dealing with society’s pre-conceived notions about them. This book gave me a new perspective on my experiences at the James McBride School. I can honestly say that I both loved and hated this book at the same time.

Community Service

Later in life when I got myself into a bit of legal trouble, I ended up doing some involuntary, court-ordered community service. That was a whole different beast because I didn’t really want to be there. Most of this time was spent picking up trash at the Emeryville Marina.

In January Erin and I spent a few days in Emeryville (just east from San Francisco across the Bay Bridge), and I took a morning walk around the marina. The park where I did my community service was still there, and I actually saw people in orange vests picking up trash just like I did… half my life ago. None of them looked like they wanted to be there either. I should have walked up to one of them and asked, “Surely you must have some interesting stories to tell. Have you ever thought about a career in blogging?” 🙂

When you perform service with a closed heart and mind, the experience is completely different compared to doing it because you really want to.

Benefits of Volunteering

I highly recommend doing some volunteer work, especially if you’ve never done it before. It’s a great way to open your heart and to feel more connected to people. If you’re feeling isolated, disconnected, misunderstood, or lonely, then volunteering can definitely help. Your biggest problems in life will all seem pretty minor when you’re face to face with the heart-melting smile of a child with cerebral palsy.

Many people have discovered new career opportunities from volunteering. If you want to work in a certain field, what better way to get started than to put in a few hours each week for free? And if you don’t have a clue what you’d like to do for your main career, volunteer at a few different places to see what you like best. You’ll learn a lot, build valuable experience, and make new friends and contacts.

Use volunteering to face some of your fears. Push yourself to grow. Are you uncomfortable around children or homeless people? How do you feel about domestic violence? Do you avoid people who are dying? You can use volunteering to face your fears head-on, gradually replacing them with greater truths.

The nice thing about most volunteer work is that you can quit whenever you want, so you don’t have to make a long-term commitment.

Volunteering is an activity, but it’s also an attitude. You’re there just to give. Obviously you’ll gain something from the experience, but it’s nice just to have the experience of helping people without needing or expecting anything in return.

Volunteering Through Your Career

Do your best to bring this same attitude to your main career. Work because you want to, not because you have to. Work like a free person who chooses to work, not like a slave who is forced to work. And when you’re at work, pour your whole heart into it. Never leave your soul at home when you go to the office.

I wrote this article because I had something I wanted to share with you, not because I need or expect something from you. My motivation to write stemmed from desire, not obligation. You’re free to read this article, think about it, and not pay me a dime for it. It is a gift.

I hate to think of what would become of my work if it was something I felt I had to do, like involuntary community service. If you work because you feel you must work to earn money, you’re poisoning your output. You don’t get great art by whipping a slave and saying, “Be more creative or else!”

Getting Started

If you’re curious to learn more about volunteering, a good place to get started is VolunteerMatch. You can use that site to search for volunteer opportunities near you. Another option is just to ask around, or stop by a place that looks interesting and ask if they could use some free help. If you’re currently in school, someone at your school may also be able to help out with volunteer placement. I got connected with the convalescent home and the James McBride School through my high school guidance counselor.

I recommend that you do something where you get to work with people face to face as opposed to sitting in a room alone doing filing. If you volunteer at a homeless shelter for example, ask to work with homeless people directly, even if you’re just serving them food. Throw your whole heart into the experience.

If your life is a struggle… if you keep getting bad breaks… if it appears that the world doesn’t much care for you, then it’s your move. The world is waiting on you to say “I love you” first.

A couple hours on a lazy afternoon is all it takes to send your life in a whole new direction.