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Healthier through helping: Volunteerism adds to life

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Paul Dean
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
There's nothing selfish about self-care. Exercise, a balanced diet, yoga, meditation, and holistic living may be activities pursued by individuals hoping to prolong life, to make existence more comfortable, or to flesh out inner needs for fulfillment; but there's more than one way to crack the longevity puzzle. Beyond the well-worn paths to self-care noted above, evidence suggests volunteerism, a selfless act, also achieves similar results: a longer and happier life.

Speaking in support of AmeriCorps (, author Thomas H. Sander said, "Civic engagement and volunteering is the new hybrid health club for the 21st Century that's free to join." AmeriCorps promotes civic engagement, offering higher education benefits to qualifying full-time participants.

The long-term health benefits of volunteerism have been the topic of several longitudinal studies, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. A May 2007 study by the Corporation for National and Community Service discovered "a significant connection between volunteering and good health." The same study goes on to find, "Volunteers have greater longevity, higher functional ability, lower rates of depression and less incidence of heart disease."

While many of the published studies on volunteerism concentrate on the elder population and the positive effects on their health, young Airmen willingly acknowledge the universal self benefits that result by helping others.

"I've always liked helping others; it's a release," said Senior Airman Amanda Bower, 97th AMW Public Affairs journeyman. "It makes me feel like I'm making a difference in the world." The Airman spent most of her off-duty time volunteering for on-and-off base causes during a recent Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment.

Although it seems contradictory, the time demands of ongoing, high-tempo operations and frequent deployments are possibly an argument in favor of small doses of volunteerism while at home. Volunteerism offers opportunities to develop resistance against stressors.

"In addition to opening up doors to new friendships, [Airmen] develop a greater sense of connectedness to others who share similar interests," said 97th Medical Group Family Advocacy Officer and clinical social worker 1st Lt. Laura A. Nichols.

Assuming an Airman volunteers for a cause he or she believes in, chances are good that relationships with like-minded people will develop. This connection with fellow volunteers - each sharing a common purpose - helps all of them form a buffer, a social safety net, where outside pressures are deflected or distilled as they filter through, said the Lieutenant.

Airmen, by their very nature and through their adherence to a primary core value - service before self - are ideal benefactors of the positive health effects of volunteerism. And many are fully aware and engaged in pursuit of these benefits, according to 97th Air Mobility Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Eric Molloy.

"[Airmen] volunteer because they want to; because they know they are needed," he said. "It isn't about a bullet on an EPR. Nobody has to strong arm anybody to step up. [Airmen] just like to demonstrate that somebody cares."

It seems whatever perspective is taken, volunteering has no downside.

"Along with a sense of pride, there is a sense of fulfillment - something that uplifts us," said Chief Molloy. "My advice is to find something, find an opportunity and go out and do it."

This volunteer spirit seems alive and well at Altus AFB. John M. Valenzuela, disaster service director for the American Red Cross's Southwest Oklahoma Chapter, estimates his agency receives at least 600 hours of volunteer work from base residents each year. This number represents volunteerism during a "normal" state; the outpouring during emergencies and times of disaster is much greater.

"If I need help with something I just call [the base]," said. Mr. Valenzuela. "Whatever we've got, it gets done."

Volunteers from Altus have assisted in reconstruction of fire-damaged houses, staffed first-aid stations and lent a hand to any number of administrative and logistical projects.

Civilians also enjoy volunteerism and share their time serving base members at the Altus Thrift Shop.

The shop, which returns all its profits to Airmen and their families through sponsorship of scholarships, is completely run by volunteers. Some of those staffing registers and sorting donations are spouses of base employees and Airmen, others are retirees. Shelly Slate, who managed the store for a year, is energized through her volunteering.

"It allows me to step out of my own world, my own drama," she said. "It gives me a true sense of satisfaction and makes me appreciate what I have."