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Why Volunteer?

A diabetes activist on how to make a difference

Way back when I started my first grown-up job, I made a decision to “tithe my time,” and volunteer in my community. I didn’t really think a lot about why I was doing it; just that it felt somehow right. Now, decades later, as what one might call an “uber- volunteer” for many diabetes organizations, I’m thankful I had those years of learning and understanding just how volunteering works.

Because I understand one simple fact about volunteering in the diabetes world (and the world in general), as trite as it may sound, I believe it’s true that you get more than you give, from building your own skills to enhancing positive change within your own community. Perhaps that’s why Americans are volunteering now more than ever before.

In my case, volunteering over the past fifteen years as I was raising a child living with type 1 diabetes has brought me friendship, support, education, high-level contacts, and access to up-to-the-minute information on life with diabetes and progress toward a cure. It has brought me a large network of friends who “get it” and are there for me at any hour and on any day. But most of all, it has brought me something more valuable than all of that.

In a world where fluctuating blood sugars, baffling medical situations, and seemingly endless tasks like fighting insurance, scheduling doctors appointments, and keeping things moving forward can just about sap you, volunteering makes me feel empowered, as though I have moved things forward in this world.

So how does one decide when, how, and why to volunteer? The answers are as unique as each person. Some of us have many hours to give and a desire to make volunteering almost a career. Others have just a few hours a year. Most may fit somewhere in between, but there is almost always an opportunity that might work for you, from taking part in the American Diabetes Association’s Tour de Cure to working with the international diabetes relief group American Youth Understanding Diabetes Abroad, just to name a few. And while each of our desires and capabilities may vary, one thing is the same: the value of bringing whatever it is we can to the table is equal. I feel strongly you can find an opportunity to match your interests.

I tell people to approach volunteering like a job search. Remember, you are valuable, and deserve to find the spot that fits you best. Consider the following as you delve into the volunteer world:

Find a mission that matches what you are passionate about.

Some diabetes groups focus on funding cure research, while others provide educational support to those living with diabetes and their families. Some help provide supplies to the needy, and others are a combination of those things. Read up on mission statements, and talk to a local organizer about what the group’s goals are. When you find one that inspires you, sign on. And remember: It’s okay to change your focus (and group) as time goes on.

Long-term or short-term?

You don’t have to sign on for a lifetime of volunteering. In fact, it may be a good idea to start out slow, with a short-term project like a walk team or volunteering to help at a specific event. This way, you can get a feel for the organization’s culture and if it’s a fit for you. It’s important here to be honest and clear with the organization. Tell them what you are interested in doing now; from the time you have available to how long you want to commit. They, in turn, need to honor that commitment. It’s fair for every volunteer to expect transparency, honesty, and respect for what they are willing to give or do.

Expect training.

Any good charitable or advocacy group should be willing to give you the support and training you need to succeed in whatever role you choose to take. From walk team trainings and tips to leadership programs for those who might be thinking of a future of doing more, ask your choice of programs how it can support you in your goals, be they short- or long-term.

You deserve to be happy, feel appreciated, and understand you are needed.

Volunteering, like so many other things in life, can be rife with politics. A quality organization knows how to help volunteers work past that, and to leave every volunteer experience with a sense of pride and accomplishment. You should never feel used, underappreciated, or dismissed. If you do, and you care about your organization, speak up and ask for guidance. You may just help them become better at motivating volunteers.

For me, the choice over the years has been multiple organizations. I’ve always been a strong supporter of the JDRF because I believe deeply in their mission. I served on the board of my daughter’s diabetes camp because camp was a powerful tool for her as she grew up with diabetes. I serve on the board of the Diabetes Scholars Foundation because I value not only rewarding hardworking young adults with type 1, but also understand the importance of helping families in need attend educational conferences they might not be able to afford without support. Have my volunteer experiences always been glorious? No. I’ve had times of frustration and sadness. But each time, I’ve worked to make things better.

And every single day, even when my daughter’s blood sugar hasn’t been perfect or I cannot bear to talk to another insurance representative, I know I’ve taken action to better the world. And even better: I know I’ve passed on the practice.

Last week, out of nowhere, my daughter who lives with diabetes mentioned she’d formed her own JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes team down in Washington DC, where she goes to school. No prompting from me; no help from home. I asked her what made her do it.

“Mom,” she said, with an eye roll I could hear over the phone, “it just makes me feel good. Really good.”

Amen to that.

Moira McCarthy is an acclaimed writer, author, and public speaker who has shared her story – and lessons – on raising a child living with type 1 diabetes in the media, through books, and on her popular blog, despitediabetes.com. McCarthy has appeared on CNN Live, Good Morning America, and Fox News. She was recently recognized as the JDRF International Volunteer of the Year. Her six books include the top-selling The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children With Juvenile Diabetes and the upcoming Raising Teens With Diabetes: A Survival Guide For Parents. McCarthy is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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