Zero to sixty: My volunteering story

Me, far right, prepping the ground for strawberry plants at a community garden project in Hyde Park earlier this month.

I must confess: I didn’t grow up volunteering. I never did service projects in school, and I wasn’t in a sorority. I walked dogs at the local animal shelter once or twice as a teenager, but that was about the extent of it. My parents raised me to be a moral person and give back to the community, but elbow-grease wasn’t emphasized.

So when I applied to be an AmeriCorps VISTA, the most volunteer experience I had was the aforementioned dog-walking and raising money for charity walks in honor of my mom (the second experience being far more rewarding than the first, despite having fewer puppy noses). And here I was, interviewing to become a full-time, full-fledged volunteer. Ahem, I don’t do things halfway.

I arrived in Chicago August 1, 2011. I sat in the 90-degree heat in my new bedroom, with its mint-ice cream colored walls, a bare mattress and my two suitcases stuffed to the brim. I had a position description for my new job, but had no idea it would be a bigger change and challenge than I could imagine.

Now I probably use the word volunteer more in a day  than I did in the first two decades of my life. I’ve done direct service painting classroom walls, planting strawberry plants in a community garden and reading to second-graders. I’ve tweeted, Facebook-ed, blogged and written press releases all trying to get more people to volunteer. I’ve presented in meetings in front of people from big-name service organizations like Chicago Cares, United Way and more. And through all of this work with thought-leaders, I’ve somehow not only caught up but learned about volunteering all the way to the cutting edge.

My job has not only been a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience, but it’s also widened my perspective on life. Whether I go into the nonprofit or corporate world after my VISTA term, I now know that volunteering will always be part of me. There’s no going back now.

In that spirit, I wanted to create a little list of good places to check out if you’re interested in volunteering. Particularly, skills-based and pro-bono work are gaining momentum. So if you’re a web developer, copy editor or lawyer, you can put your skill set to full use. Volunteering isn’t just painting schools anymore!

A Billion + Change

Epic

Taproot

Women On Call

What did I miss? Feel free to post in the comments.

P.S. If you’re in the Chicago area, Epic is also hosting an event for creatives interested in getting involved in this way March 22. Check it out.

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