”It is what you give that defines you, not what you have.” — Abdou Kattih

I was in sixth grade, and my friend Patti gave me the book “The Giving Tree” for my birthday. I loved that book, but I always felt so sad that the little boy just kept taking and the tree kept giving even when she had so little left to give, receiving nothing in return.

It’s how many of us live our lives, and I try hard to pay attention to those who give so selflessly that I don’t take advantage of their kindness. Recently, I was in a conversation with my friend Abdou about how he gives so much of himself to our community, and his words were a needed reminder of the unimportance what we have is and the greater value that is in what we give.

The reminder came in my email that Giving Tuesday was just around the corner, and I’ve marked it for next year to write about before the day arrives. It’s the Tuesday after Thanksgiving every year, and I can guarantee several local organizations would love to be the recipient of your financial giving any day of the year.

Giving Tuesday isn’t the only time we can give to the people in our communities, and money isn’t the only thing groups need. They need volunteers to give time, they often need donors to give items, and they need communities to get the word out to those in need.

Sometimes, it’s easy to come away feeling like people needing help is a new thing, but it isn’t. In 1600, we find the word being used in terms of offering oneself for military service, but by 1635 we can find it used in terms of non-military service. It is from the Middle French word, voluntaire.

Whether offering your services to the military, to the Volunteer Fire Department (begun by Benjamin Franklin in 1736), or to a community group whose mission means enough to you that you’ll give your time to help it continue reaching people (or pets), volunteering is like a thread in the fabric of society and of life.

One of the more difficult lessons for me to learn as an adult was when I had to accept that not everyone wants to volunteer, and not everyone will commit to help people in need. And apparently, my wanting to mandate those feelings of the heart isn’t going to play out well in real life. And so ... we keep digging into the why, where, and who of volunteering.

Why. One of the more popular reasons for volunteering is to help your community.

Where. Helping your family instead of paying people to do needed work is one of the first ways most of us experienced volunteering. Communities can be the family, a school, your place of worship, a civic group, or a type of business in your town.

Who. People who love animals will often find themselves volunteering their time at the local animal shelter. People who have a soft spot for other people who might be down on their luck can often be found at a shelter for homeless people. If children or adults with special needs is an area that tugs at your heart, there are organizations who would love to have your hands and your heart come help. And don’t think volunteering is only for adults. There are plenty of places where kids and teens can give their time.

Volunteering doesn’t cost a person any money, for the most part. I mean, it costs time, and “time is money,” but the real cost is just what it takes from a person’s heart. Truth be told, volunteering typically is a gift FOR a person’s heart. As with a statin, aspirin, or Clopidogrel, volunteering is not without side effects, but they aren’t written in tiny print or rushed through by a fast-talking announcer.

From the Australian government health site, we learn, “Being a volunteer has lots of benefits. It can bring meaning and purpose to your life, while increasing your self-esteem and wellbeing. Volunteering can also relieve stress and alleviate symptoms of depression. As well as having a positive impact on your community, volunteering can improve your relationships.” And digging into the surveys from Volunteer Match, we see a variety of reasons real people say they volunteer:

• “I love animals.”

• “To combat depression.”

• “It gives my life purpose.”

• “To put my skills to work for others.”

• “To understand the world.”

• “To show my children and grandchildren the importance of giving back.”

• “So those I’m serving feel cared for.”

• “My husband and I volunteer in the National Parks and Monuments to help the under-funded system …”

• “I am disabled but need to feel useful.”

• “For spiritual/religious reasons.”

We don’t have to understand why volunteering helps our heart (literally and figuratively). Stepping outside of our own problems just seems to help, and sometimes that knowing is enough.

And if you are looking for love, well, it seems becoming a volunteer is a great way to meet someone who cares about the same things you do. Former football and baseball player Tim Tebow met his wife while they were both volunteering at an event, and if bars or churches aren’t your scene, it makes perfect sense. In fact, I came across a sort of dating app to match up with people who are interested in the same types of volunteer projects.

My point is this, helping a group you care about doesn’t always mean figuring out how to write a check. While organizations need financial support, they also need warm bodies to help lighten the load and spread the love.

Whether you knit hats, put together food boxes, or take people on tours to see wonderful pieces of art, you can find a place that needs what you have — your knowledge, your heart, and your time. How many times can you watch that rerun, after all?

In the words of my beautiful friend Abdou, it is in our giving that we find our worth. Need a list of places to volunteer in your community? Send me an email, and I’ll provide you a list. Need volunteers in your community? Send me that, too.

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at (

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