Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Power of Volunteering to Make an Impact

I remember this one day in the spring of 2008 more vividly than any other while working at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA). I was writing a story for AFA’s caregiver magazine on the value of intergenerational programming, and I was sitting in on a poetry writing session at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House that brought together its adult day participants with high school students from the East Bronx Academy of the Future.
    At the session, together the mix of students and older adults who had memory loss crafted original works of poetry with the help of Gary Glazner, founder of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project.
      When I sat down to interview the students, I was amazed by their insight and how moved they were by the experience of collaborating with these adults.
    One student, Jamel Minkins, who was 18 at the time, said, “There was a unity of all the people coming together. We saw how alive they were. I realized that they are still a young person on the inside.”
     And from that day my passion for bringing together young people with individuals with dementia through meaningful volunteer opportunities was born. In the three years since, I have watched as an entire family  devoted musical performances to residents of nearby care facilities, a teen planned out an entire week of awareness-raising activities to educate her classmates about Alzheimer’s disease,  and yet another teen organized 15 of her classmates to make frequent visits that engage residents of her local nursing home.
    I have enjoyed hearing their stories and watching as they witness the tremendous difference a few hours a week--or even a month--can make in the lives of families facing such a devastating disease.
     I was so moved by how much of an impact teens could make with their efforts that I realized their volunteerism  should not come to a halt upon high school graduation—and, with that, we pushed forward with a new AFA division for college students, AFA on Campus.
     AFA on Campus caters exclusively to students at colleges and universities across the country in an effort to engage them in awareness-raising activities and to groom tomorrow’s leaders in the Alzheimer’s community. Among its goals are to create support networks for students coping with Alzheimer’s disease in their families while attending college, and provide meaningful volunteer activities.
    The value of volunteerism at the collegiate level cannot be understated. In fact, I recently read that volunteering is not only the right thing to do, but it is the healthy thing to do. In three unrelated studies researchers found: community service reduced mortality by as much as 60 percent; people with chronic pain who volunteered to help peers cope with their pain experienced a reduction in pain, depression and disability; and individuals with HIV who voluntarily cared for others and/or gave to charities experienced a slower disease progression. Scientists have deemed this “the helper’s high” since “giving” actually produces endorphins, a type of hormone that reduces pain.
     Along these lines, AFA is further encouraging the power of volunteering through our “AFA Teens Volunteer Across America Challenge.” AFA is calling on those teens ages 13-19, including those making the transition to college, to log a minimum of 50 hours of service this summer and to write a brief reflection on the experience. A winner and runner-up will receive an iPad.
     I encourage you to realize the potential you have to make a difference in the lives of those touched by the disease. Forego an hour or two a week of just sending e-mails, scrolling through Facebook, or watching television to make an impact!