I like vision boards.
For years, I have had a picture of a horse on mine – mostly because I wanted to learn how to ride, but also because I just loved the idea of being around horses. Sure, I had been out a few times here and there, but I had never really learnt how to care for a horse and to properly ride. About two years ago, my lovely friend Brant came across A Horse Tale - a rescue dedicated to providing a safe, comfortable, and loving environment for the horses that pass through their gates, where they promote rehabilitation and when possible facilitate rehoming - and he jumped right in.
I, on the other hand, had a host of reasons why I couldn’t volunteer.
You see, the problem is that as someone who WORKS in and STUDIED the field, I was so caught up in my own life that I was viewing a volunteer gig as an obligation – another task on my long to-do list. But I had it all wrong. If volunteering seems boring, daunting, or worse – something you resent, then cut that out of your life asap. That’s not how volunteering works, you’re supposed to enjoy it so if you aren’t, find something that you do.
This fall when I moved back to Montreal, and all semblance of my regular life was slipping through my fingers, I asked Brant if I could tag along to the barn. I had just lost my sweet Maxi, and as someone who has had a dog her whole life, I was no stranger to the therapeutic benefits of animals. And so, we pulled up to A Horse Tale, I signed my life away (just kidding, well…somewhat, I am wilfully putting myself in paddocks with 1,000+lbs animals after all), Brant handed me a rake and told me to go muck. Mucking is a nice way to say picking up horse shit.
The great thing about A Horse Tale is that everyone is welcomed. They ask you pay a small member fee of $25 and come in for a training session and the rest is well, baptism by fire. There are always leads at the barn, so you work your way up, learning about everything from feeding horses, grooming them, mucking and figuring out which ones are sassier than the others – I’m looking at you Chocolate (the diabetic pony who is the smallest, but by far the scariest).
So here I was, sad, disoriented, questioning a lot of life choices and learning to deal with anxiety and walked in to a barn full of discarded horses and big-hearted strangers, and I found complete bliss. I like data, so there are scientific reasons to back this up: volunteering benefits people physically and leads to a longer, happier life.
According to a 2013 UnitedHealth Group survey, 76% of people who volunteered reported the experience made them feel healthier, and 78% felt the work lowered their stress levels.
Study after study concludes that giving back in terms of volunteering, especially in areas of expertise or passion, is an important component in living longer and well. Volunteers reported lower levels of depression, increased life satisfaction and enhanced well-being.
But there are also just logical reasons to back this up – stepping out of your mind and serving others just feels good. Giving of yourself, just feels good. Doing something with zero expectations in return, just feels good. I was fortunate to learn this at a very young age because my grandpa instilled it in us. By the time I was 6, he had me in a soup kitchen serving the local homeless community – and that was the tip of the iceberg for him, my grandpa lived in service. He volunteered at the church, drove cancer patients to appointments, coordinated meals for the homeless and was an OG corporate philanthropist, including his staff in most of his philanthropic work.
Somewhere along the way, I moved away from the grassroots-get-your-hands-dirty kind of work and volunteered mostly on boards or on the strategic side of philanthropy. I figured that’s where I could make the most impact given my career, but I realized that while it was helping others, it wasn’t helping me. I was never getting a break from what I do professionally, and was starting to feel burnt out.
I think people sometimes get tripped up about volunteering, but it’s actually quite simple, so here are a few tips to get you started:
1. What makes you happy?
When you close your eyes and think of what makes you happy, what immediately comes to mind? Animals? Art? Sports? Food? Music? Travel?
2. Why does it make you happy?
Now take that thought and write down all the reasons why it makes you happy. Maybe it gives you peace, maybe you’re a natural talent or maybe it’s just so different from what you do in your daily life
3. How much time do you have to give?
Take a look at your week and months – where and how often do you think you could make time for giving back?
4. Find a match!
There are tons and tons of organizations – maybe you like to paint and you can teach a painting class at a local senior’s residence once a month, maybe you love kids and can volunteer to cuddle babies in the NICU, maybe you love sports and there’s a local team who needs a coach or better yet, a sport for development program that uses sport to accomplish its mission abroad.
Believe me, there is an opportunity for anything you may be interested in! I am grateful to Brant for having introduced me to a cause that was such a great fit and at a perfect time in my life. Here are a few resources to get you started, and as always – I love chatting all things philanthropy if you want more guidance in finding an opportunity that may be right for you!