Why your doctor may prescribe volunteering

Posted: Friday, July 31, 2009

Pat Bjorhovde, a representative with the Association of Fundraising Professionals, made her first trip to Juneau this week and immediately called her husband and told him they need to come back together. She told her husband, who is of Norwegian descent, that he would love it. It isn't surprising to hear such great words about the beauty of Juneau, but it still made me proud (once again) of the place I call home.

Bjorhovde met with 17 nonprofit fundraisers to discuss the state of fundraising in this recessionary time. Alaska certainly has not been hit as hard as many other areas of the United States - or the world, for that matter - but the impact is still being felt here, particularly at the loss of many foundation grants and especially in the area of capital campaigns.

The good news she delivered was this: People still want to make a difference, particularly in their communities. Individuals like to give when they are able to see where and how their donations can improve the lives of their families, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Donors want to invest when they can see the return and feel its impact. Giving can take two forms: monetary donations and offering our own time through volunteering (something we often neglect to remember).

Statistics show that Alaskans are great volunteers. About 38 percent of us - or 189,100 volunteers statewide - put in 28.4 million hours of service. That's 57.1 hours per person, which ranks Alaska as second in the nation! The value of this service to the economy is a whopping $575 million.

Volunteering is a long held American value, recognized by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 when he wrote his classic treatise "Democracy in America." The giving of our time without expecting monetary compensation is something that sets us apart from many cultures. The intention may be seen as helping others, but many researchers have shown that volunteers receive mental and physical benefits. One such benefit is called "helper's high," which is a rush of endorphins that can also help fight maladies, such as depression, and strengthen the immune system.

Allan Luks and Peggy Payne discuss the helper's high in their book, "The Healing Power of Doing Good." They describe it as a feeling of exhilaration and a burst of energy, likened to the "runner's high" felt after intense exercise. Afterward, there is a period of calmness and serenity, which is why 90 percent of Luks's study group reported volunteering as a remedy to stress, chronic pain and even insomnia.

Luks and Payne studied more than 3,000 American volunteers who reported that the helper's high lasted several weeks. Some even said reflecting on their volunteer work conjured up the euphoric sensation all over again. Other studies show volunteers live longer and experience better health, with decreased blood pressure, stomach acid and cholesterol counts.

If your doctor prescribes volunteering as an antidote for what ails you, please go to www.unitedwayseak.org to find an opportunity right here in Southeast Alaska that suits your interests and fits your busy schedule.

• Brenda Hewitt is the President of United Way of Southeast Alaska, a nonprofit committed to building stronger and healthier communities by giving, volunteering and advocating in the areas of health, education and income stability.

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