Giving time to good causes offers students many unexpected rewards

By Larissa Gula

Pittsburgh needs me. It needs you too.

Volunteering is one of my favorite activities and I do… Pittsburgh needs me. It needs you too.

Volunteering is one of my favorite activities and I do it pretty often. Working in the community not only gives a volunteer a sense of purpose and happiness, it can also help teach people about their city and give them networking opportunities.

I’m not alone when it comes to volunteering. Nationally, 62.7 million people volunteered a total of 8.1 billion hours of service in 2010, according to Volunteering in America’s website. The average volunteer spent about 34.1 hours working for no pay to help others and support various causes.

Often, the idea of “making a difference” comes up among volunteers at any site. There are other reasons to get involved, too, from learning about local issues to potentially getting academic credit, according to Terrence Milani, director of Pitt’s Student Volunteer Outreach office.

There are different levels of volunteering. Some people take part in one-time projects with multiple organizations, and others spend their time working at one site repeatedly. I do a little bit of both.

For example, through one of the organizations I’ve worked with — The Pittsburgh Project — I learned about food deserts, areas where people have absolutely no access to nutritious, healthy food.

The Pittsburgh Project is a local nonprofit that helps residents in the North Side by repairing houses, hosting summer camps and after-school programs, and even running a local farmers market. I learned about the issues that exist in areas like Pittsburgh’s Hill District while working on their urban farm.

Brett Probert, the volunteer resources assistant of The Pittsburgh Project, reported that so far in 2011, the group has had nearly 1,200 volunteers work for 6,000 hours.

“Obviously, the impact volunteers make for our ministry is huge,” he said. “We could not begin to accomplish much of what we do without them.”

A lot of organizations utilize one-time volunteers for various projects because “episodic volunteers” can fill “sporadic” needs, Probert said.

But one-time volunteering is relatively brief, and some opportunities are lost when a volunteer’s involvement is brief. This is why there’s another option volunteers have that I take part in: volunteering on a regular basis.

Currently I volunteer with a local museum and a local animal shelter, and I could go on and on about the benefits these two things have brought my way.

Volunteering not only helps with volunteer networking, but with career networking as well. At the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, a nonprofit museum that operates and preserves old streetcars, I have a network of people who are like family to me. People have written letters of recommendation as well as connected with me on the website LinkedIn.

I can also add real-world experience  to my resume, like marketing. I also work as a volunteer for the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society’s College Canine program. The shelter sends volunteers to campus once a week to help students reduce stress. For three years now, I’ve helped the group manage their online media and I can add those advertising clips to my resume.

After three years, I’ve bonded with the coordinator of the program, Marsha Robbins. Last summer, she helped me land an internship I desperately needed to finish my major and helped me find a job at the same site.

But these are all side benefits of volunteering. The real benefit is helping others and at the shelter, that can make a huge difference, Robbins said. Animals are calmer and happier thanks to cat cuddlers and dog walkers, meaning it’s easier for vet techs and adoptions coordinators to handle the animals and do their jobs.

Depending on the site a student picks, volunteering potentially “enhances academic performance and pursuits,” Milani said. Often, people find volunteer programs that match their personal or academic interests, which means that their volunteer work gives them extra time to learn and even work ahead of their peers. And there are always the benefits of hands-on experience and networking.

Some students avoid volunteering because of time issues, so finding a great volunteer site is important. Some require extensive time on site, but others are very relaxed about hours students put in.

Fortunately, finding a place to volunteer that matches your personal interests is not difficult. Students can find a club at Pitt that aligns with their personal interests and ask about volunteering opportunities. They can get involved in religious activities and service projects, or even talk to professors about volunteering options in their fields of interest.

Google is always a good place to look, too. On the Student Volunteer Outreach website,, students can sign up to receive a bulletin that currently reaches about 9,000 students a month and features about 150 volunteering sites.

This weekend, consider starting a few one-time volunteer projects and see where you want to keep going, what matches your personality and which one matches your time schedule the best. What do you have to lose by trying something new?