Volunteering -- Selflessness or Selfishness?

I have spent many hours over the past twenty-five years volunteering with Habitat For Humanity. As a carpenter and a believer in reaching out to those around me, it is a perfect fit.
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I recently made a trip to New Jersey with a few friends from Virginia. It wasn't a vacation, and it wasn't a business trip. It wasn't a trip planned so we could visit New York City. It wasn't a trip to Atlantic City and the Jersey Shore to gamble or walk "The Boards." It wasn't a trip to sample the fine cuisine of North Jersey. Although I have to admit this adventure included a trip to White Castle, a stop for a hot dawg with chili at my favorite grill, and one breakfast that involved Taylor Ham pork roll (it's a Jersey thing) at a bagel joint. This trip was to volunteer with Habitat For Humanity.

I have spent many hours over the past twenty-five years volunteering with Habitat For Humanity. As a carpenter and a believer in reaching out to those around me, it is a perfect fit. This Habitat Road Trip had an added special feature. On this trip, we would be working with the students from the high school I attended. Not only would I have fun building with the other volunteers, but all my wonderful childhood memories would also surround me.

Passaic Valley High School is in Little Falls, New Jersey. Little Falls is a pretty little town about fourteen miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel. Partly because of its proximity to New York, this little town of just over 14,000 people has a very culturally diverse population. Towns close to such big cities also often operate at an accelerated pace. Little Falls is no exception.

The plan for this event was to help 125 high school students from various backgrounds build a wall system for a Habitat Home. The walls would be temporarily erected on the front lawn of the high school. After standing proud and tall on the front lawn of the high school for a week or two, they would then be moved about thirty miles west to another small town, Budd Lake.

In the near future, a group of volunteers will again travel to New Jersey to help build most of the home over a weekend with some volunteers from Budd Lake. The result will be that many people who don't even know one another will join hands to create a home that a good family will then buy from Habitat. The joining of hands and hearts is a big part of what creates the magic at Habitat For Humanity events.

The school and the students took a break from the fast pace to help make a difference that Saturday morning. The school canceled the team's softball practice because they understood the magnitude of what would happen on the front lawn that day. When I welcomed the students, I discussed that our society often connects happiness with money. I tried to explain to the students that the easiest way to achieve happiness is reaching out and giving someone a hand-up. I told the group that gathered early that Saturday morning, if you help those around you, happiness will chase you and tackle you.

I have found great wisdom in the words "the best way to become rich is to give." There were many bent nails, sore muscles, splinters, and blisters, but the huge grins on these volunteers' faces completely overshadowed those things. The smiles at the end of the day seemed to indicate that many students understood that early-morning message and "felt that feeling."

I am not shy, and my personality has made me comfortable as a vocal cheerleader for Habitat For Humanity. Because of that, I have been publicly thanked and recognized quite often for my volunteer efforts. Those words of thanks and public recognition are one of the few things that ever cause me to feel embarrassed. My wife says I should feel embarrassed many other times, but let's not go there.

I recently read an article by someone who volunteered with Habitat and discussed similar feelings. People often see volunteerism as a selfless act. I feel guilty when people thank me for volunteering because it is anything but a selfless act. It is quite selfish. I have never been able to give as much as I have received by reaching out. I have worked around countless other volunteers who feel the same way. At the end of the day, you can see that you have moved the world one step. It is difficult to feel much better.

My volunteer work with Habitat also has included many blessings. It puts my challenges in the proper perspective. It helps my heart grow. It clears my head. It allows me to associate with some wonderful people. It helps me keep my priorities in order. It helps me sleep better at night. It gives me hope for the future, and it makes me grin in a major way. This partial list is why I am embarrassed when people talk about my selflessness.

So, why have I taken the time to confess this to the world? If you already understand this conflict of terms, you have already given of yourself. Please continue to do so. If you have yet to experience this feeling, I ask you to give it a shot. Please reach out to someone who needs a hand-up. If you attempt such selflessness, it comes with a warning. You might end up feeling good all over and just a bit selfish.