I have a confession to make. This is a deep dark secret – one I’ve been hiding for years often misrepresenting myself to cover up for. I’ve never spent much time volunteering. It seems everyone else in the city is single-handedly rescuing three-legged puppies from certain death or teaching blind and deaf World War II vets how to read. Some of my close college friends sit on boards for non-profit organizations. I don’t even know what boards do!
Hearing the inspiring stories of how my friends and colleagues have made a difference in the community through volunteering is inspirational, but I’ve never felt passionate enough about a particular cause to jump through the necessary hoops to get involved.
That was until my company launched a new volunteerism program. The program makes it easy to browse and connect with local non-profit organizations. As an added bonus, for every 20 hours you spend volunteering, they make a $100 donation to the non-profit of your choice. Nothing inspires me faster than free money – even if the free money isn’t exactly going to me.
Several months ago I browsed through the VolunteerMatch.org search engine looking for a volunteer opportunity that struck my interest. On page three I found it: BolderOptions! Bolder Options is a local non-profit mentoring program that matches at-risk kids with adult mentors. The program focuses on not only building trusting relationships, but also teaches kids how to live healthy lifestyles through fitness and mindful eating. Each mentor/mentee pair run three 5K races together and attend several informational sessions about nutrition, goal setting and living a healthy lifestyle.
After learning more about the program at a Volunteer Fair, (yes, the one where I dressed up as Volunteer Girl) I was hooked.
After orientation, an interview and a background check, I was accepted into the program. Within a month I was matched with my mentee. To protect her privacy, I won’t provide details on her. But I will say that she is gracious, curious and extremely smart. In many ways she is a mentor to me as well. I have learned so much from her in the six weeks we have been working together. She teaches me about her culture and provides insight on the challenges of being a teenager in a whole new era. She’s even teaching me how to shoot and dribble a basketball. My 14 year old mentee taught me how to throw a free throw shot with precision. This is a feat an army of disgruntled phys ed teachers failed to do despite years of drills. This girl is truly special and I’m so proud I get to be part of her life. I always look forward to the evenings we get to spend together, and I can see she’s excited and happy to be part of the program.
My commitment with Bolder Options is for 12 months. During that time I will hang out with my mentee once a week in addition to our races and meetings. Part of the reason I’ve always been resistant to committing to a volunteer opportunity is because the time commitment seemed overwhelming. Also, I really like my well established after-work routine of yoga pants and fig newtons. It’s hard to talk me out of the Real Housewives reruns, even if the alternative is far more beneficial for all involved. As we know, I often let my plans default to pajamas and chocolate milk.
Although aligning our schedules can be tricky at times, the 3 – 4 hours a week we spend together flies by, and it’s always drastically more fulfilling then the fig newtons, albeit slightly less delicious.
Sharing my expertise and joy for running and fitness with my mentee is exhilarating. Not only do I feel like I’m making a difference in my mentee’s life, I’m making a measurable difference in my own life. Volunteering has opened my eyes and allowed me to view the world with a different lens. My mentee lives in North Minneapolis, an area I’ve always avoided. Being surrounded by the neighborhood gives me a whole different perspective that I’d never gain if I stayed sheltered in the suburbs. While things are certainly less polished, there is an air of camaraderie there. When I told my mentee that I have never met most of my neighbors she was shocked. Everyone one knows everyone in North.
There are millions of ways to make a difference in the world. Some take seconds (picking up trash on the sidewalk) and others take years (developing a non profit organization to preserve the humane treatment of clowns) but if you look hard enough you can find a way to make a difference in a way that is meaningful for you.
Bolder Options is an outstanding organization. I have so many fit friends that would make perfect mentors. You can change an at-risk child’s life. For real – that’s not just lip service, you can literally change to trajectory of a kid’s life by being a role model.
I’m going to be bold and throw down a challenge! I challenge YOU to try a new volunteer opportunity this year – then share it in the comments section of this blog. For every person who tries a new volunteer opportunity and comments about it by Dec. 31, 2011, I will donate $5 to charity. We’ll determine which non-profit will get my dough later in the fall. Not sure where to start? Check out volunteermatch.org for ideas and contact info.
FYI- These opinions are all Megan. I was not asked to promote Bolder Options or VolunteerMatch.org, I just think they’re awesome and you should too.