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The happiness bonus

Volunteering can fit into any schedule

Alice Jackson and Ruth Sharp enjoy helping people at the Retiree Activities Office on McChord Field. Photo credit: Joan Brown

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As far back as the 1830s, French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville traveled through the United States and applauded Americans for their ability to see a problem and come together almost spontaneously to tackle solving it. He saw this as the foundation of our democratic society. Yet most of us don't realize how strikingly American volunteerism is.

Scientists now know it is also a two-way street and reaps at least as many benefits for the helper as those being helped. In fact, research shows the more we give, the happier we are and the less we feel stress, anger or anxiety. Volunteer work in an area we find meaningful and interesting can also lead to making new friends, learning new skills and sometimes even finding paid positions.

When Ed Boselly walked into the McChord Headquarters building to get a new ID card 13 years ago, he stopped to talk to some workers at the Retiree Activities Office (RAO) who seemed to be having a good time together.

He's been volunteering there and enjoying that team spirit ever since.

There's "a comfort in feeling you're helping people," said Del Bates, who has volunteered at the RAO for 11 years, particularly with items such as Survivor Benefit Plan issues or legal assistance.

Jean Williams was looking for a place to volunteer when she stopped to chat with a former Air Force friend at RAO and realized she'd found what she was looking for.  She said many clients are particularly grateful to be able to ask questions and get assistance from a human being now that customer service is mostly computerized. She, too, said helping families with casualty assistance is one of the most sought-after services at the RAO.

RAO Manager Jack Whitaker points out that many people, like himself, are not yet ready to retire completely -- even after a second career following the military. They enjoy having commitments outside of the home and miss the camaraderie of their or their spouse's time in the service. Yet they still want to have the freedom to travel and honor other responsibilities. The good news is that there is plenty of room for flexibility in the commitment volunteers make. "You sign up for the days you want," Whitaker said.

He agrees there's real satisfaction in being able to help people.

"Often, someone will feel so frustrated because he or she can't understand something (and will) call in to ask our help in getting things straightened out," Whitaker explained. "For example, not everyone realizes that when they turn 65 they have to update their DEERS record, get a new ID card, and make sure everything is updated so that they're on the Medicare and Tricare For Life rosters."

Keeping up with changes as they take place and new requests are two things volunteer Alice Jackson enjoys most about her work. Jackson had originally been part of a local informal survivor support group when volunteer Ruth Sharp, also a widow, called to ask if she'd like to try volunteering at RAO.  She's still there 11 years later.

Sharp and Jackson see the work at the RAO as very much a team effort, and that includes the fun had by all at the annual summer picnics and Christmas parties.

"Those of us who were Air Force spouses particularly enjoy the war stories the military tell," Sharp said.  

A volunteer for the past 15 years, Sharp said she feels very much at home each time she drives back on to the base.

"It feels like we're still part of the Air Force family," she said. And it's a family that takes care of its own.

As one client said, "After spending an hour-and-a-half on the phone yesterday, basically talking to a computer, I can't begin to tell you how much it has meant to me today to talk to a human being."

McChord RAO, open 9 a.m. to noon, Monday-Friday, Customer Service Mall, first floor, Bldg. 100, McChord Field, 253.982.3214

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