Seven Tips for a Successful Volunteer Year

Advice from recent volunteers

By Mike Garcia (Red Cloud Indian School 2011-12; Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps 2012-13), Emily Simmonds (Lutheran Volunteer Corps 2012-13), and Gordon Wong (Amate House 2011-12)

Believe it or not: You’re doing it! You have committed to a life-changing year of service! We want to assure you that any feelings you have are, most likely, totally normal. You may be nervous. You may be excited. You may be overwhelmed, and you should know that it’s okay. There is no exact formula for how to have the “best service year ever.” As alumni, we have had a wide range of experiences that vary  from learning how to cook in large quantities and finding time for prayer, to how to immerse ourselves in our new surroundings. We are no experts, but we’ve come up with a short list of helpful tips we believe are good steppingstones for your upcoming year of service!

1. Appreciate the Roses and Thorns

With every volunteer experience there are going to be ups and downs. It’s important to remember that you will be challenged and tested but also blessed with the fruits that service brings to your life. Make sure to take time to recognize these challenges and rewards to better grasp where you are spiritually and mentally. Be sure to also take in the rewards that come with service. Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others.” Appreciate all the moments that continually shape who you are and give thanks for them as well.

2. Treat yourself

Don’t be afraid to treat yourself every now and then. Volunteers work hard and it’s good to take a little time to have that bowl of ice cream or go to a movie. Try seeing well known tourist sites in your area, spend time in a local park or plan a camping trip with your community. Never forget to give yourself a pat on the back for all your hard work and say, “Way to go me, now let’s have some fun!”

3. Balance

One of the biggest challenges volunteers face is balancing their personal, work, and community lives. Let’s be honest, volunteers are busy people so it is important to take the time to evaluate how you are spending your time. You may consider adjusting a little to achieve a better balance. Volunteers can spend a great deal of time with their community and forget to make time for themselves. A good rule of thumb is to balance your days with a little community time and a little personal time after work. Eat dinner with your community then make time to exercise or read a book on your own! You will find that striking a balance between community and alone time leaves you feeling more energized about the work you are doing.

4. Take advantage of your location

Make the most of living in a new place! As a volunteer, you are a community member in your new area, but you can be a tourist too! Make sure to take advantage of the parks, gardens, museums (don’t forget to check for free admission days), downtown, hiking trails, and other sites nearby. Explore different neighborhoods and find out what makes them unique. Ask your co-workers, worship communities, and neighbors  about their favorite spots and things to do – what coffee shops, restaurants, after-work and weekend activities you should check out. Read the local newspaper or blogs to find upcoming events, as well as to stay up-to-date on local politics, community issues, and culture in your new area. Immersing yourself in the local community will surely enhance your service experience.

5. Engage your spirituality

Spirituality is a major component of a volunteer year, so it is important to make time to focus on it. Spiritual growth requires time, a conscious effort, and commitment - it doesn’t just happen in the busyness of work or community life. Take time for reflection on your own in whatever setting you feel particularly drawn to: sitting outside, hiking, meditation, journaling, or just sitting in silence. Think about how the challenges you have seen and faced in work affected you personally and spiritually. In all of the new experiences you are encountering, how have you grown?

Reflecting on and thinking about your spirituality doesn’t just need to be an individual activity. Reach out to fellow volunteers and community members. Seek out spiritual direction offered through your program or a local place of worship. Ask questions about others’ spiritualties and share about your own: what you struggle with, believe strongly, are curious about, and more. This is a meaningful way to connect with others and learn about yourself at the same time.

Additionally, try visiting new places of worship. Explore the unique traditions and cultures of each. Consider checking out churches in different communities and you may be surprised to find that each has it's own unique flavor. Learning about traditions different from your own offers you new perspectives and opportunities to think about your own beliefs.

6. Howdy Neighbor!

What goes on internally in your community is probably what you will remember most from your experience but don’t forget about the community that exists outside your home. You are a part of the outside community because of the work you do. Have you thought about connecting with fellow volunteers in other programs near you? Don’t know where to start? Use CVN’s online directory to find local programs. Send a quick email to program staff to connect you with these volunteers in your area:

Another good way to become a part of your neighborhood is to join your local church or faith community, and take part in any major events or programs. It’s a great way to meet your neighbors and it helps allow you to invest yourself into your community.

7. Living simply isn’t just about money

Living simply will be hard, different, and rewarding. But, it is important to consider what this phrase actually means. Living simply is not just about the modest stipend you receive, but it also can extend to the way you make decisions affecting other parts of your life. We encourage you to think outside your bank account and wallet when it comes to simplifying your life. Here are some suggestions:

  • Food: Have you considered growing your own herbs? They are easy to maintain, and also make great decorations for your home. Adding that something extra to your meal can make you feel like a five star chef! You could try your hand at composting as a great way to become a “zero waste” community. It’s a great way to meet your neighbors: “Hey neighbor, you want some compost?”
  • Time: Move away from the screen. Think about how much time you spend in front of a computer at work and how long your eyes are fixated on your phone. Instead of typing out an e-mail to a friend, opt for a hand written letter. Consider spending that extra time you have to start a book or new art project.
  • iNature: It’s easy to stick in a set of headphones during your commute and miss what’s going on around you. Unplug every once in a while to take in your surroundings. God created a natural soundtrack for us, and we are His audience.

In conclusion, we hope that this year will be filled with joy and lessons learned. We’ll be thinking of you all during your service year.



Shared Visions is a collaborative effort between Catholic Volunteer Network and Catholic Apostolate Center.