The positive mental health effects of volunteering are well documented. A study published last year in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that people who volunteered over the past year reported being happier and having better physical and mental health. Other studies have found that volunteering may have a positive impact on everything from self-esteem to longevity.
And giving back can be fun, too. Here are surprising and enjoyable ways you can give back.
Look around your community. It’s likely that there are places that can be made more beautiful and even functional with a little bit of gardening. A movement that started in Brussels encourages people to be “guerilla gardeners” and take those gardening matters into their own hands (with appropriate permissions, of course). Plan and tend to a small garden in your community. Make and distribute “seed bombs” of native plants to introduce more greenery or flowers. Enlist the help of other community members and groups to increase your impact.
If you love theater, immerse yourself in the community and regional theater scene. Throughout the country, small theaters host plays, musicals, concerts, and other productions for community members to enjoy—and many of these nonprofit organizations run through the work of volunteers. From auditioning for a part to applying to be part of the crew, there are many opportunities to help the show go on. Find your closest community theater by contacting your state arts council, your local library, or the American Association of Community Theatre.
If you love animals, there are plenty of ways to get more involved in fulfilling and memorable ways. Love exotic animals? Zoos and aquariums need volunteers to help with everything from tours to going behind the scenes to feed animals and clean habitats. You could even gain experience for a new job working with wildlife. Find out more on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums website. While it may take rigorous training, licensing, and permitting, you may also train to work with injured animals or birds as a wildlife rehabilitator. Check PAWS.org for information about the requirements. If you’re more the domestic animal type, your local animal shelter may need people to play with puppies and kittens to socialize them or take dogs for walks.
Where can you get outdoors, see some of the most beautiful sights in the world, and give back to your country and the planet? Look no further than our National Park Service (NPS), which offers unusual volunteer opportunities throughout the country and its territories. You could be guide on Amtrak train rides to explain local historical sites and parks to passengers. Or opt for the Citizen Science program, which puts you out in the field to study biodiversity, environmental change, and more. (A good choice if you like to get your hands dirty. Plus, it offers a great perk: the NPS issues free interagency volunteer passes to volunteers with more than 250 service hours. Depending on how often you visit national parks that charge entry fees, your Volunteer Pass’ annual value could easily exceed $100.
If you’re more of a homebody who loves to work on the computer, volunteer mapping lets you contribute information about your community or places you visit to create new maps. The U.S. Geological Service’s National Map Corps recruits volunteers to add information about structures like schools, parks, and other community features through its app. As you participate, you can earn reward points and virtual badges that recognize your efforts. The American Red Cross is also seeking volunteers for its Missing Maps project.