Givin’ Back to the Mitten: The Hidden Benefits of Volunteering

We can all agree volunteering is essential to enriching our communities and helping individuals in need. However, in our culture of increasing demands on time and attention, it’s more important than ever to account for how we spend our hard-earned minutes. What specifically is it about volunteering that makes it a unique and transformative personal experience? Or, in other words: What else is in it for us?

With this question in mind, each season on Awesome Mitten, we will take a look at some of the compelling, and sometimes overlooked, benefits found in volunteering. In doing this, we will also focus on a few of the many non-profit organizations that are doing good work all over Michigan. Hopefully, this will help you get the ball rolling on givin’ back to the mitten!

Volunteering Benefit: Valuable Experience

“Let him that would move the world, first move himself.” –Socrates

How often have you said, “I would love to learn how to ______, but I just don’t know where to start.” Well, getting involved in a volunteer organization can be a great way to take those clumsy first steps on the path toward building new skills. Yes, volunteering is work and unpaid work at that. But what you have to keep in mind is, at the end of the day, you are getting paid in the most elusive of all of the elements of progress: Experience. And gaining experience means you are that much closer to landing the career of your dreams, developing a rewarding hobby or just about anything in between.

There is no doubt; it is uncomfortable to be a beginner. The best part about being a volunteer is that it’s ok, even encouraged, to be the new person. In exchange for your genuine effort, you are provided an environment in which it is acceptable to try new things and “fake it ‘til you make it.” Another great benefit is that there are often experienced volunteers around to help you with all of those beginner questions.

Awesome-Mitten-Recycle-A-BikeFeatured Non-Profit: Recycle-a-Bike

I found a great example of this valuable experience when, recently, I was looking to develop some bike maintenance and repair skills. I knew some of the basics, changing tires and such, but was sick of forking over $50+ dollars every spring for tune ups and other specialized work. That is when I met Don Cunkle, the director of the Traverse City based Non-Profit “Recycle-a-Bike” program.

Recycle-a-Bike takes donated bikes in need of work, fixes them up and makes them available to those in need of transportation through local service agencies. Fortunately for me, they just so happen to utilize an all-volunteer staff of bike mechanics. Don was gracious enough to allow me to work at the Recycle-a-Bike shop for a few weeks, and it was a really cool experience.

Photo courtesy of Recycle-A-Bike

He provided good direction when necessary, and I was able to pick up some tips and tricks that will no doubt come in handy in the spring. The best part was that I knew that the bikes I helped fix were going to make an immediate difference in someone’s life. After my experience wrenching at the Recycle-a-Bike shop, I can say that I feel like a more competent amateur bike mechanic (and certainly a more humble one after witnessing the skill level differential between Don and yours truly).

If you would like to learn more about Recycle-a-Bicycle, and the great work they are doing, check out their website and stay up to date on news from the shop on their Facebook page.

Let’s hear from you! In the comment section, share some stories about your volunteering experiences and what you learned.

Matthew Zerilli, Contributing Writer

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