Commitment to volunteerism is a hallmark of American civic life. It is, at its core, very American. On average, 62 million Americans volunteer on a regular basis, and the median number of an individual’s volunteer hours per year is 52. Volunteers are not primarily retirees, as one might assume; people who are employed are much more likely to volunteer.
What are the tangible benefits of volunteerism? Why would someone born and raised outside of the U.S. decide to embrace this core American tradition?

Volunteering is a powerful way to effect social change at many levels.

Volunteering is an opportunity to connect with a neighbor or with others who think in similar ways. Social isolation is one of many struggles for any immigrant trying to “build a new life.” Immediately after arrival is the time to quickly “magically integrate” into life in a new home. But coming to a new place with new traditions, cultural, and social norms, learning a new language, and adapting to new ways of living is far from easy. Finding ways to volunteer at a child’s school, a local community garden, or the library can create intentional connections with others and build a strong sense of belonging.

For those who have recently arrived, volunteering is a very practical and effective way to build a “work” history. This is especially attractive for those with prior work histories outside of the U.S.; employers always look for evidence of U.S.-based experience. The countless volunteer opportunities are great ways to match professional aspirations. If someone is passionate about the environment and has a background in accounting, finding a nonprofit volunteering to help them manage their accounts would match both interests and skills. The same theory applies to electricians, project managers, graphic designers, and many many others.

Volunteering will expand a contact network. One of the biggest struggles for any foreign-trained individual is building its network. At the Office of Economic Opportunity, we are trying to address this challenge through the Portland Professional Connections Program. However, volunteerism is an added bonus. Not only does volunteering expand a social network, it enhances a professional network and offers a reliable pool of trusted individuals who can speak about the volunteer’s good character.

Volunteering is an invaluable opportunity to get to know a new community from a grassroots perspective.

To learn more about opportunities to volunteer in a specific region or local community, visit Volunteers of America website, or call 211. Portland residents may check the City of Portland Office of Economic Opportunity website, especially the community calendar and the “How Do I” sections, or email OEO at [email protected]. We would love to help make connections!