Helping Out in Times of Crisis

Jul 15, 2011

Our hearts go out to all these people, and we want to help. Often, we tweet $10 to the Red Cross or write a check to our favourite charity; this is valuable help and indicative of a community of caring coming together.

Red Cross volunteer out in New Jersey.

So many of us want to help in person. We want to reach out and touch the women, men, and children who are suffering. Those opportunities are not always available immediately – but there are longer-term ways to help. Volunteers still travel to the New Orleans area to replace houses demolished by Katrina.

Numbers of volunteers soar at times of tragedy, but in my experience, the volunteer tradition is proud and strong among Americans on a daily basis. Surprisingly often, people have taken a break from work to volunteer for an extended time. It’s a type of sabbatical, or what some call a ‘Reboot Break.’ People make plans and arrangements to leave their jobs to volunteer for a period of weeks or months. They may take the sabbatical from a job and return to it, or they may do it in between jobs. Others take a volunteering break before retirement, to explore their retirement options.

Margaret and Mark have loved volunteering throughout their married life. In the 80s, they traveled in Sudan and fell in love with the people. When the devastating famine struck there later, they raised money in their hometown of Ketchum, Idaho, and went to Sudan to help. They founded a food and medical clinic and added a special program for street kids. They also have volunteered extensively in their home community. The last ­several winters, the two have gone to Mexico to explore where they would like to retire. They’ve found the ­perfect town, drawn there in large part by several compelling volunteer opportunities from which to choose as the center of their new life.

It’s common to combine volunteering with other ways to spend a sabbatical. It can be satisfying to fill the days with different types of activities. Someone may spend time with an ill friend or family member while also volunteering at the local animal shelter or reading to kids, plus taking time for exercise and having fun with friends.

Betsy, a doctor in North Carolina, took a sabbatical to volunteer in South Africa. The other doctors in her small practice group were skeptical, but she arranged for a new doctor to take her patients for several months. Her time in South Africa was everything she hoped for personally, and she knew she was making a real contribution there through her skills. Before and after her travel to Africa, she used the time to reacquaint with family and friends and start jogging again. Today, she has a thriving medical practice and a better life balance, which includes volunteering in her own community.

WHO-Trained volunteers assist Haitian women and children. (Photo: UN)

Rita says that volunteer work has always been one of her passions, but it took a ‘Reboot Break’ to ­satisfy her desire to become more deeply involved. “Though I contributed financially to several non-profit organizations and was on the board of one, I started to crave spending more time on work that seemed so important to me,” said Rita. “When my company announced that it was moving its headquarters to another part of the country, it was the perfect time to take a sabbatical. I immersed myself in microfinance, a field where the results are immediate, tangible, and scalable. I was soon asked to become chair of Pro Mujer, a non-profit organization that gives $170 loans and business training to women in Latin America whose families earn under $2 a day. They also receive health services for the whole family. It changes their lives. I was able to bring my business knowledge and experience to bear on several strategic areas for the organization. Since I wasn’t working at an 8-6 (or 24/7) job, I had time to travel to meet the women in the ­programs in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Peru, and Mexico, and to help start a program in Argentina. My life is so enriched by all the amazing South American women I met on that sabbatical. They and their children inspire me every day.”

Reaching out to others isn’t confined to baby boomers like Betsy, Rita, Mark, and Margaret. How many young people do you know who volunteered for a summer overseas or for a few months before, during, or after high school or college? I know several who spent time in Africa as volunteers and are now working there.

Many corporations encourage volunteering as part of their Social Responsibility initiative. Some give paid corporate sabbaticals to employees who want to give back. Even if there is no formal program, people yearning to volunteer overseas may find their company receptive to paying them for such a sabbatical.

The beauty is, you don’t have to be a doctor or teacher or have other specialized training. Any kind of giving of oneself is a way to help. We cannot all go to humanitarian crisis zones overseas, though many of us will. As part of the “new volunteerism” industry, we can find organized volunteer programs in countries that are not necessarily in crisis zones. People of all ages can go online, find an opportunity almost anywhere in the world, and sign up. The participants are individuals on sabbatical, groups of friends, and families on vacation.

Closer to home, we can work on humanitarian crises or everyday problems by collecting clothes, filling food banks, driving, helping organize efforts, assisting in communication through language or technology, loading and unloading trucks, helping to rescue animals separated from their owners.

Red Cross volunteers in Haiti. (Photo: UN)

Our workdays are full from morning to bedtime. We are always “on” and accountable to our computers or smart phones – our horizons narrowing to the screen and our immediate concerns. Taking time to volunteer and give back is multi-dimensional. It is a chance to step back and also to expand. It’s a gift of time for oneself and for others. Helping out in times of tragedy gives us all the opportunities to prove we are part of the human community.

Nancy Bearg is a co-author of Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break. She has worked on humanitarian crises in her national security public policy professional career and is an avid volunteer.
© FrontLine Security 2011