Serving Others, or Serving Yourself?

Why do people volunteer? When asked this question, I think most people would answer with something along the lines of, “Because it feels good to help others.” But where does this “good” feeling come from? Is it because it truly feels good to know you are helping make someone’s life better or meeting a need in an underserved community? Or, is it because volunteering allows us to absolve ourselves of some of the guilt we feel for being more privileged than others? Prior to starting my service year with National Health Corps, I was most certainly guilty of the latter. My ideas about what service means and why people volunteer were naive and selfish. However, as I reflect on my previous volunteer work and my year with NHC, I can confidently say that my understanding of the term “service” has undergone a radical transformation.

In high school, I volunteered as a tutor, taught instrument lessons to elementary music students, and spent time in elementary school classrooms helping teachers and reading with students. I genuinely enjoyed these experiences, but looking back now I realize that my reasons for doing these things were mostly self-serving. I volunteered to seem involved and because it looked good on college applications. The joy I got from these experiences was secondary. Later, when I started college, I felt compelled to immediately find volunteer opportunities so that I could get involved and impress my peers. Again, my reasons were selfish. Unfortunately, the rigor of my classes and involvement in other activities kept me from volunteering as much as I had intended. It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I began to volunteer regularly again. I started volunteering with my college’s chapter of the Food Recovery Network helping to “recover” leftover food from the dining halls so that it could be donated to local community partners such as food shelves and schools. I was interested in food insecurity as a public health issue, especially in Minnesota, where so much of our country’s food is produced. I had found a volunteering experience that was personally and professionally meaningful to me, helping to address a public health issue in my home state. This experience felt different.

Fast forward to my service year with NHC. As the year progressed, I realized that if I didn’t find volunteer opportunities that were meaningful to me, I wouldn’t be able to get through this program. I owed it to myself to find more meaning and purpose in my volunteer work, and I owed it to Pittsburgh to serve the communities here genuinely and wholeheartedly. So, I thought carefully about what my skills were, where I could be most useful, and the organizations whose visions and values resonated with my own. Using this approach, I was able to find consistent volunteer opportunities that I was excited to report to every week, opportunities that made me feel good, and not in the self-congratulatory sense. I won’t lie, this year has been challenging, and it was difficult at times to be fully engaged in my volunteer work and see the bigger picture. But, this year in NHC has certainly shifted how I think about service and volunteering. I have come to appreciate volunteering for what it is supposed to be--giving of myself to people and communities who desperately need to be uplifted, rather than to absolve myself of my privilege or earning a gold star. Therein lies the fine line between selflessness and selfishness, serving others versus serving yourself. It can be an ambiguous line. Some people are clearly on one side or the other, but I think many of us have one foot on both sides. I would encourage anyone who volunteers in any capacity to reflect on their volunteer experiences and consider why they do what they do. Why do you really volunteer? Do you do it to serve others, or to serve yourself?


This post was written by NPHC member Tim Oliver.

Tim serves at UPMC Children's Hospital as an Outreach Coordinator.