I believe that there are many paths to Heaven, among them are Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and all of the other great world religions. However, I also believe that there is another path: volunteering. I believe that volunteering is good for the soul. It gives us inner strength, humbles us, teaches us many lessons, and fulfils our lives – all while improving the lives of others.
When a was twenty-something, a dear friend of mind took care of his elderly neighbor, his aging parents and, through the “buddy” program of the Colorado Health Network, a terminally ill person. He did all this while holding down a full time job. Needless to say, he didn’t have a lot of time for me, but I understood and respected his commitments and, when he did have time for dinner or coffee, I cherished his stories.
Those stories led me down my own path. I became a “buddy” for the Colorado Health Network back in 1991. After a few weeks of training on the weekends, I was matched up with a terminally ill man. The volunteer coordinator felt that Lad and I would be a good match because we both enjoyed biking. After our initial meeting, I found out that Lad’s preferred form of biking took him to such venues as Sturgis on his Harley. My form of biking took me a very different venue: the Colorado Trail on my mountain bike. Both Lad and I struggled with our first few meetings. However, over time, we became good friends, and enjoyed our time together. He beat me in chess. I beat him in cards. We both enjoyed talking about meaningless and mundane topics. I learned something about motorcycles and he learned something about cycling. As I tried to stop by a couple of times a week to see if he needed any errands run and tried to call more often just to check in, we became close despite our different backgrounds. I was devastated when he passed away about a year after our initial meeting.
While I decided that I could never again assume that type of volunteering role, I did come to realize how fulfilling the experience was. I learned so much about the needs of others. I learned a lot about the red tape people need to go through to get disability benefit. I learned how difficult life can be for people on a fixed income. I learned hard lessons about the stress of knowing your own mortality. I learned about the process of dying. I also learned a lot about myself. Since then, I helped set up a low fee legal referral service program, called the Match Program, to assist Denver’s working poor. I’ve also helped clean up the water gardens at the Denver Botanic Gardens. And I’ve been intimately involved for over ten years in helping programs funded by the National Institutes of Health develop vaccines that prevent HIV infection through studies around the world. My roles have ranged from being on ethics committees to actually sitting side-by-side with scientists on protocol development teams. I’ve met, and have the honor of calling my friends, people from South Africa, Malawi, Botswana, Peru, Brazil, Thailand and all over the US. It’s been a wild and fantastic ride.
Many of my in-laws are deeply faithful members of various Christian denominations. I respect the paths that they have chosen. I myself have only been to religious services on a few occasions in the past fifteen years – I doubt that I’d even qualify as one of the so-called “Christmas and Easter Christians”. I’m sure that my in-laws are very concerned for my soul. However, I’ve chosen my path and worship frequently at the alter of volunteering. I’m confident that the path I’ve chosen has saved my soul.
I believe that there are many others around the world who share my path. Americans have a long history of volunteering. Everyone knows of Jimmy Carter’s volunteer projects; he has inspired thousand of Americans to service. President George W. Bush presented the President’s Volunteer Service Award to Molly and Carly Houlahan, ages 15 and 13, last July. The path is well worn.
Volunteering is good for the soul. This I believe.
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