I have spent most of my life believing that community service was something to be avoided.  It always had an aura of punishment.  If it is so rewarding, I thought, why is it always associated with restitution for lawbreakers?    Whenever I saw the words “Volunteers Needed,” I envisioned emptying bedpans in a dimly lit infirmary or ringing a bell on a cold street corner dressed as Santa.  I cynically concluded that these activities were best served by those with a burning desire for sainthood.  God bless them for being such caring souls, for I am not one of them.

My reluctance to volunteer was cultured in grade school, where I feigned paralysis of the hand whenever the teacher asked for helpers to clean the chalkboard. And years later, in the corporate world, I learned quickly what happens to those who volunteer suggestions in meetings: they are condemned to spearhead committees for eternity.  For years I lived by the rule that invisibility was empowering.

But one day I received in the mail an annual appeal to support Summit’s Volunteer First Aid Squad.   Like other towns in our area, Summit relies on a volunteer organization to provide emergency medical services to its residents.   As part of the Emergency Medical System (EMS) chain, the Squad is liable ethically, morally, and legally for the well being of patients in its care.  Summit depends on this service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it is fully staffed and managed by people who earn nothing more than the unique satisfaction they draw in being EMS volunteers.

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These are not the kind of people that hide in the back when assistance is needed, I thought as I wrote a healthy check to support their operations.  And then I saw the two words that brought a familiar paralysis to my hand: Volunteers Needed!

At first I laughed at the notion of participating in an EMS organization.  The extent of my first aid training came from instructions on band-aid boxes.  I do not particularly like hospitals, and I avoid sickness . . . well, like the plague.  Yet deep down I recognized a desire to help others that wasn’t being satisfied in my career as a marketing consultant.  And perhaps even more compelling, I always harbored a desire to drive an ambulance. 

Fueled by little more than a child-like curiosity, I summoned the courage to raise my dormant hand, knocked on the door of the Summit First Aid Squad, and asked if I could volunteer some time. 

I have been on the Squad almost ten years now and, with training, have become certified as an Emergency Medical Technician.  Alongside other squad volunteers, I respond to emergencies involving death, serious trauma, debilitating illness, severe emotional distress, and a panoply of less critical problems that fill up an Emergency Room on any given day.  I have overcome fears, learned new skills, and helped people in real need.  It is an exhilarating challenge that I embrace whenever I am on duty.   Oh, and I also drive the ambulance. 

But my real compensation springs from the appreciation I receive.  Patients and their families thank me.  Neighbors in the community who recognize that I am giving my time pat me on the back.  Other members of the squad, who I now count as trusted friends, applaud my contribution, as much or as little as it may be.  My kids think I am a hero.

This is a new and pleasant experience for me.  In my professional life, clients seldom thank me in a meaningful way.  After all, I am being paid—isn’t that thanks enough?  Or maybe I have lost a sense of appreciation because on a more human scale, the work just isn’t all that important.  After all, there is little chance that I will save someone’s life with a well-crafted Power Point presentation.

It would be appealing to say that I have changed.  I haven’t.  I am not a “do-gooder” seeking sainthood.  But I am proud to call myself a volunteer.  I feel like I am giving for a change, not just taking.  And for me, this feels new and different and very, very gratifying.

I have come to understand that volunteering for community service is not a punishment; it is a reward.  It is a chance to help other people, experience tangible gratitude for our efforts, and be recognized for talents that are too often taken for granted elsewhere in our lives—talents like experience, thoughtfulness, compassion, or maybe just a willingness to help.   We don’t have to be saints. 

We just have to raise our hands.