The Power of Volunteering
Years ago, I was incredibly fortunate to attend a wonderful college in Northern California. I got a stellar education that helped set me on a path to success. Many years later, my own son was equally fortunate to attend an excellent university on the East Coast. He, too, received an unparalleled education that has helped steer him towards a successful, happy career.
For years I have felt beyond grateful for these blessings and wanted to find a way to pay it forward. But, more importantly, I wanted to find a way to give every high school student what my son and I had – the power of higher education. I just didn’t know how I could best do this.
Until one day, I was standing on a train platform coming back from visiting my son at college in New Jersey, when I got to talking to a pair of total strangers who were also waiting for the train. I don’t normally talk to strangers on a train platform. Even though I’m from California, I know enough East Coast train etiquette to know you don’t talk to people on the platform and that pushing people out of the way to get off the train car is totally acceptable. But on that day, that couple, who turned out to be from the Midwest, started up a conversation. East Coast etiquette be damned.
As we sat together on the train, opening small talk long exhausted, we got down to more interesting personal details. And, lo and behold, this couple from Missouri ran a nonprofit called Mentors for College. And that nonprofit just happened to offer free mentoring services to underserved high school kids who needed help with their college application process.
I’ve never been that “kismet-believing” kind of person. But there had to be a reason I was on that train, at that time, on that day next to that couple. We talked all the way into New York City and I signed up to volunteer with them just before I pushed them out of my way to get off the train. Okay… I didn’t really push them out of my way. They were from the Midwest, and so nice, so I let them off first, even though other die-hard New Yorkers were glaring at me.
I’ve been volunteering with their nonprofit ever since, about seven years now. They trained me to be one of their mentors to work with students and their families to help them navigate the often-overwhelming college application process. I’m part of a cadre of volunteer mentors who are helping level the playing field for high school students who don’t have the abundance my son had. It’s my dream “volunteer” job. I’m euphoric every time our students are accepted to colleges they had never dreamed of applying to. I’m also now on their Board of Directors.
You don’t need to stand on a train platform in New Jersey to find an organization you can be passionate about, volunteer for, and make a difference with. We have a book for that. From donating an hour a month to something more substantial such as becoming a board member, or making a financial contribution, every organization in these pages can use your passion, your skill set, your dedication and your wisdom.
As for me, I’m still mentoring. And I do find myself talking to more strangers on train platforms now and, frankly, that hasn’t gone as well. My last conversation, a month ago, ended with me “losing” my wallet and some young man in Connecticut getting a new iPhone at Best Buy.
–Vicki Horwits, Associate Editor