Volunteer to Help Those Hit By the Recession

You can help others and also develop connections and skills that can help you, too.

By + More

Certified public accountant Ron Paolini, 62, of Nashville helps low-income families by offering them free tax assistance that enables them to get the earned income tax credit and other benefits they might have missed on their own. Paolini volunteers his time—as much as four days a week—through a program run by United Way of Metropolitan Nashville. "It's personally satisfying to help," he says of his 20-year stint.

In this recession, the need for financial and other aid has spiked, according to the United Way of America. The increased need for food, housing, heat, and other necessities comes at the same time that nonprofits are bracing for precipitous drops in donations. Paolini and nearly 61 million Americans who volunteer some 8 billion hours each year can fill in some of the gaps.

More is needed in these times, experts say. "We believe the nation needs 10 million more volunteers," says former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, board chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that administers AmeriCorps and other national service programs. The groups that need assistance most are the nation's youth and poor seniors, Goldsmith says. Thirteen million children live in poverty, 3 million of whom go to bed hungry, and 15 million more need a mentor to prevent dropping out of school or worse. Meanwhile, 5 million seniors regularly sacrifice food to pay bills, according to AARP. Charities can help. "We see when they are visited [by volunteers]," Goldsmith says, "they live longer and they are happier."

Volunteerism helps not only those receiving services but those providing them, too. Research shows volunteers live longer, are less depressed, and less likely to have heart disease. Besides health rewards, volunteering can provide a chance to gain new career skills. "It keeps me on my toes because I've got to stay on top of [tax changes]," notes Paolini, a retiree. For those recently unemployed, volunteering can be a connection to the next job.