As volunteer Jackie Swift helps families fill their kitchen shelves through a Wichita food pantry and helps donors giving blood at the local American Red Cross, she’s not only helping others, she’s more than likely helping herself to live a longer and healthier life, experts say.
Studies continue to show there are more benefits to volunteering than just doing good.
In recent years, the Corporation for National and Community Service reviewed more than 30 studies for the relationship between health and volunteering. What they found was that volunteering was good for the body and the mind, in some cases lowering depression and improving one’s heart health.
And now there’s a study that shows the reasons why one volunteers plays a part in reaping the healthy benefits.
People who volunteer because they want to help others live longer than people who don’t volunteer at all, the University of Michigan study showed. People who volunteer for a more self-oriented reason — such as it looks good on a resume — don’t live any longer than those who don’t volunteer, the researchers found.
Forming social connections also was an important benefit for those volunteering for less self-oriented reasons, according to the study.
“There are a lot of benefits from helping each other,” said Lou Medvene, a psychology professor at Wichita State University who studies relationships and the aging process. “There’s no question about it.”
Swift doesn’t need to read the research to know volunteering is important to both her and the community.
“For me, it’s totally about the people,” said the 73-year-old former day-care provider. “The need is so terrific in the community. And I’ve made some dear friends.”
She volunteers five days a week, splitting her time between working the food pantry at Catholic Charities and the canteen and receptionist’s desk at the American Red Cross’ Wichita Blood Donor Center. Sometimes she even volunteers on weekends. As a breast cancer survivor, she also has volunteered at Victory in the Valley, a local cancer education and support organization.
“I love volunteering,” Swift said. “It’s become an important part of my life.”
Swift also enjoys the friendships she’s developed with other volunteers. Now her schedule includes monthly breakfast get-togethers and an occasional outing with a group of fellow Red Cross volunteers.
Swift initially got involved with volunteering as a way to help her husband with his cognitive functions.
“We started together to keep active,” Swift said. “He was in the early stages of dementia.”
After he died in October 2005, she “really jumped in.”
Studies have shown that people who volunteer “are functioning better cognitively,” Medvene said. People tend to feel better mentally when they feel that what they are doing matters, he said.
Tim Colle knows firsthand that the work done by volunteers at the ARC of Sedgwick County matters. Twenty years ago, his daughter Samantha started participating in services offered by the nonprofit organization that helps individuals with developmental disabilities. For 12 years, she participated in a summer camp and went on community outings and trips sponsored by the group.
“She got a lot of benefits, and it’s good for so many people,” Colle said.
As a way to give back, Colle started volunteering on weekends and during off-times from work. When he retired three years ago from his job as a production manager at The Coleman Co., he increased his volunteer hours.
“I’ve stayed plenty busy,” he said, as he helped check Christmas lights on the ARC’s Lights of St. Paul activity. The Lights of St. Paul, a fundraising opportunity for the organization, showcases a million Christmas lights in various displays and takes volunteers about two months to set up. The drive-through display continues from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. tonight.
Colle even saw a health perk from the extensive work he put in volunteering to set up the lights: “Since I started working on the lights, I lost 18 pounds.”
He’s also volunteered to accompany clients of the ARC to basketball games and concerts, chaperone dances at local recreation centers and this summer he helped build raised vegetable gardens for clients living independently.
“I really enjoy helping out,” said Colle. “If you’ve got something that you can (contribute) you should get out and do it.”
For Colle and Swift, volunteering is a way to keep up an active lifestyle.
“I really do believe an active life helps keep you healthier,” Swift said. “And I wouldn’t have these wonderful friendships I’ve formed if it wasn’t for volunteering.”