In 1998, when Pat Sukhum volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters Twin Cities, he didn't know the 9-year-old kid he'd signed on to mentor would someday be the best man at his wedding.
Sukhum was 24 when he met Derrick Pam and was confident he had much knowledge about life to impart. What he didn't expect was that the learning would go in both directions.
Their relationship "changed who I was," Sukhum said. "My compassion towards the world is better because of Derrick. I've had much more fun, I have better memories, I've tried so many more new things."
During the month of March, The Star Tribune will be exploring the various elements of volunteering, from how to find an opportunity that fits you to how helping others can have a boomerang effect and make your life better.
Sukhum is now CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Twin Cities, a job he acquired in 2021 with the encouragement of Derrick, who is now 34. "I can talk to him about anything, so I said, 'I'm actually kind of scared.' He was very much, 'You're doing this. Stop undermining yourself. You need to get your resume done by next week.'"
As Sukhum's experience shows, you can't know exactly what you'll get out of volunteering until you do it. But many volunteers say they wind up benefiting right along with the recipients of their service.
Of course, people don't typically say, "What's in it for me?" when they perform good deeds. But it's nice to know that life improvements might be a fringe benefit, the way a walk in the park on a beautiful day also provides healthy exercise.
Many of the claims about personal rewards are supported by research, along with much anecdotal evidence provided by countless volunteers themselves, among whom "I get much more out of it than I give" is a common refrain.
That's not to say they act only for personal gain, said Mark Snyder, a social psychologist at the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of the Individual and Society, who has been studying volunteerism for decades.
"I really think it's a two-way street," he said. "It's not that volunteers care about themselves and only incidentally care about volunteering. Doing good for others and doing good for themselves both sustain their volunteering."
Some of the biggest perks are easy to notice. If you want to meet people, you'll likely get to know more of them when volunteering than you would sitting on your couch. If you want a career in a particular industry, volunteering for companies in that industry is a good way to make connections and find job opportunities.
When Snyder first moved to the Twin Cities, he didn't know anyone here with common interests. So he signed up to work on a presidential campaign. "I met people while volunteering for that who are still my friends many, many years later."
Studies show a strong association between volunteering and physical and psychological health.
In a study at Carnegie Mellon University, people volunteering at least 200 hours a year were 40% less likely to develop high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. And volunteering may lower your risk of dying anytime soon. In a 2005 Stanford University study of 7,500 people over eight years, "frequent volunteers had significantly reduced mortality compared to non-volunteers," researchers wrote, including when the numbers were controlled for other factors like medical status and physical activity.
There's evidence that the engagement provided by volunteering helps maintain cognitive health. While it's possible that an association between health and volunteering could simply mean healthy people are more likely to volunteer, longitudinal research provides evidence that volunteering could be the cause of the good health.
"You watch as people age, and the ones that seem to be most vibrant mentally are the ones that have kept engaged rather than just slinking off into whatever abyss they want to go into," said Marie Ford, 80, a volunteer at Bridging. "I feel like my mental acuity is related to stimulation I get from working with Bridging and interacting with people."
Research suggests that volunteering could boost people's sense of well-being, self-esteem and purpose, a finding supported by volunteers' own reports.
"When I come home after volunteering I am energized, and it's hard to describe the feeling of well-being," said Carol Mulroy, 86, of St. Paul, a driver for Meals on Wheels who also opens her garage as a play center for neighborhood immigrant children.
Brad Benson of Nevis, Minn., who serves as a foster grandparent at the local school, gets rewards from eating lunch and chatting with first- and second-graders.
"We talk about sports, food, pets, siblings and what they did over the weekend or even the technicalities to determine if a T-Rex could beat King Kong in a wrestling match," Benson said. "It helps to keep me young in spirit."
About five years ago, Sandy Paulus, 59, and her wife, Toni Mula, 60, started helping host AARP events. Now the Champlin couple do various tasks for AARP several days a week — so often, they said cheerfully, that the staff urges them to take a break now and then.
"And we keep telling them, 'It's OK, we'll tell you when we're overloaded,'" Paulus said. "When we got involved with AARP, my mood changed, my quality of life changed. I thought, 'This is my purpose. This makes me happy.'"
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Companies are increasingly offering volunteering opportunities as a job benefit. The companies, in turn, may see rewards in the form of increased employee engagement, team building, networking and potentially improved employee health.
"Volunteering offers participants the opportunity to strengthen their skills, broaden their networks, break out of a career rut and find new meaning in their job," said an article in Harvard Business Review. "All these benefits redound to employers in the form of increased engagement and retention."
Employees at Thrivent, a Minneapolis-based financial corporation, receive 20 hours a year of paid time off for volunteering. Those who log 25 hours receive $250 they can direct to a nonprofit of their choice, said Kelly Baker, Thrivent's chief human resources officer.
"We believe that our workforce generosity programs play a huge role in creating enriching and fulfilling careers for our employees," Baker said. "Through employee feedback, we've heard that these programs help build important bonds when teams serve together."
Employees at Lunds & Byerlys corporate office make regular trips to Open Arms, a food distribution center. The experience helps give employees a larger sense of their food-related work and strengthens relationships, said Kristi Ryan, the company's events and demo manger.
"Everything there is so positive and warm and giving," she said. "When you're working hard you sometimes don't take time to think about those things, and we get to feel that and live that."
When asked what they get out of volunteering, people often mention smiles, Snyder said, such as "When I arrive at the door and I hand over the bag [of food], the smile on their face makes it all worthwhile." It's a small moment, but research has shown that "smiling faces have very powerful impacts on our brains," Snyder said. "They really respond positively."
And that feeling can last, said retired judge and frequent volunteer Kathryn Messerich, 65, of Mendota Heights. "People always remember how they felt about a human transaction."
Mulroy has enjoyed the relationships she's made with neighbors thanks to volunteering. "People wave to me as I walk by," she said.
Then there are those benefits that fall into the category of "they can't be expected, but you never know." Christine Page, community engagement manager at Foundation for Essential Needs, received one of those. While on a bus taking a group to read to schoolkids, Page met the man who became her husband.
"I thought, he's on the bus, he volunteered — he must be half-decent!" she said.