WAC Magazine

November/December 2013

Issue link: http://www.wacmagazine.com/i/201657

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Page 22 of 64

Where to start? Here's a very short list of great organizations that can kick-start your journey. A STRONGER HEART Global volunteering—also called voluntourism—allows travelers to step outside of their comfort zone and experience a new culture in ways most outsiders don't or won't. Away from buses, restaurants and stores, volunteers have an opportunity to work with locals, learn regional customs, help grassroots projects, and give back to indigenous communities. By volunteering, we can improve others' health and our own. As we adapt to new situations, we learn more about ourselves, gain confidence, and find meaning. Recent studies have found that volunteering leads to better mental, physical and emotional health. Volunteering is also shown to reduce the risk of high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. In a 2013 study by UnitedHealth Group and the Optum Institute titled "Doing Good is Good for You," 76 percent of U.S. adults who volunteer said they felt physically healthier, and 78 percent reported feeling less stressed. Another recent study on volunteerism's health benefits from Carnegie Mellon University, published in the journal of Psychology and Aging, showed that adults over the age of 51 who volunteered on a regular basis were 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure than those who didn't volunteer. For some people, volunteering leads to physical activity, yielding better physical and emotional health. For others, volunteering provides an outlet away from their problems and worries, thus decreasing depression, anxiety and stress. These health benefits don't only serve older adults. In the journal JAMA Pediatrics, a study showed that adolescent volunteering is linked with lower inflammation, cholesterol, and body mass index. That study also found that volunteering improved mood and self-esteem, which boosts your overall health. Even if you volunteer only for the purpose of helping others, you will likely still experience positive personal effects that can include improved heart health and emotional well-being. GOING ABROAD There are countless organizations that help connect individuals to international volunteer programs. Perhaps you are curious about a particular country and want to spend time there. Maybe you're willing to go anywhere. Or perhaps you want to stay closer to home (Canada, anyone?). Whatever your preference, the scope of your search is limited only by your imagination. If you are project-driven rather than country-driven, you can search by topic instead. Would you like to volunteer on an archeology dig, teach English, help with computers or business development, do environmental restoration work, volunteer on an ocean conservation effort, or save sea turtles? You can. For some starter ideas and more help, check out some of my recommendations (see sidebar). Whatever you do, choose something you feel passionate about. Perhaps your last vacation left you wanting to know more about a particular culture. Maybe you want to contribute your expertise to an underdeveloped country. Or maybe you want to learn a new skill or language. No matter where you go or what you do, be sure to pack flexibility, a sense of humor, and a desire to help. Remember that it's up to you to adapt, not the other way around. Volunteering can give you the experience of a lifetime, from the people you meet to your actual project work. While you're at it, you're sure to experience personal benefits, as well. It's a win-win worth pursuing. Along the way, don't be afraid to swim with a few elephants. U.S.–based placement organizations Earthwatch Institute: earthwatch.org Habitat for Humanity: habitat.org Sierra Club: content.sierraclub.org/ outings/national/volunteer-vacations Global grassroots projects Elephant Nature Park, Thailand: elephantnaturepark.org Volunteer South America: volunteersouthamerica.net El Nahual Community Center and language school, Guatemala: languageselnahual.com VaughanTown, Spain: vaughantown.com Joyce Major is an awardwinning author and speaker. She's traveled the world as a volunteer and uses her classes and teaching to inspire others. NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2013 | Washington Athletic Club Magazine | 23

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