Volunteering Together: Building friendships and strengthening bonds

Posted 5/26/24

(Family Features)

As people age, many social avenues from earlier phases of life, such as school and work, no longer exist and making friends can be difficult. Experts suggest volunteering as a beneficial way to make friends and improve social well-being.

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Volunteering Together: Building friendships and strengthening bonds


(Family Features) Volunteering has always been a big part of Shelley Brosnan’s life, whether she was serving in her children’s school or in their Fairfax, Va., community. When Brosnan retired, increasing her volunteer efforts was a natural next step. Serving with Volunteer Fairfax, an AmeriCorps Seniors RSVP program, she spends about 10 hours a week teaching new volunteers about helping older adults age in place, providing food for those in need and extending the capacity of local nonprofits.

“There’s so much to love about volunteering,” Brosnan said. “Providing purpose and serving the community are obvious reasons, but the connections I make with others are one of the greatest benefits. I just really love helping people and I’ve made friends through volunteering.”

Brosnan’s experience with volunteering is backed by science. According to the Mayo Clinic, having a solid social network improves both physical and mental health as it can boost happiness, increase your sense of belonging and improve self-confidence. As people age, many social avenues from earlier phases of life, such as school and work, no longer exist and making friends can be difficult. The Mayo Clinic suggests volunteering as a beneficial way to make friends and improve social well-being.

“Volunteering fosters more connected and less isolated older adults,” said Atalaya Sergi, director at AmeriCorps Seniors. “Our research, focused on the impact of our programs, finds volunteering can provide positive health and well-being outcomes. In our study, 84% of participants reported stable or improving health and 88% had lower feelings of isolation within one year of volunteering. Each year, we match more than 143,000 Americans with volunteer opportunities, helping build connections and address societal issues, nurturing real relationships that help people become both happier and more fulfilled.”

Adults ages 55 and up, like Brosnan, can be matched with local volunteer organizations fitting their interests, skills and availability through AmeriCorps Seniors, the nation’s largest national service program for older adults, which offers three signature programs. Brosnan and other volunteers nationwide play crucial roles in community resilience and connectedness.

“RSVP volunteers, such as Shelley, take on diverse activities based on community need such as delivering meals, supporting veterans and military families, cleaning parks or helping with tax prep and financial literacy,” Sergi said. “Our Foster Grandparent Program pairs volunteers with youth, in mentoring and tutoring relationships. Lastly, the Senior Companion Program is a way to give a helping hand to other older adults and those with disabilities, assisting them with day-to-day tasks, such as grocery shopping and transportation to appointments. They also support caregivers through respite services.”

The time commitment for all programs is flexible, ranging from a few hours to 40 hours per week.

Research studies like the Harvard University Study of Adult Development, found that older adults who invest in, care for and develop the next generation are three times as likely to be happy as those who did not. Volunteers Francois Mwabi and Jerome Menyo, based in Kentwood, Mich., are two more examples of the difference it can make to serve.

Mwabi and Menyo attest to the joy of impacting youth by passing on their wisdom and sharing their culture and language with students, many of whom are refugees from different parts of Africa just as Mwabi and Menyo themselves were several years ago. The two volunteers are so popular among the students and staff that teachers had to work out a schedule for all their students to be able to spend time with them.

One of the reasons the program has such a positive impact is the intergenerational connections it helps establish. Benefits abound not only for the young, but particularly for the volunteers.

“We love being here because of the environment and the students who study here,” Menyo said. “The teachers like us. I help students who speak my language. I enjoy it and they enjoy it, too.”

Intragenerational pairings are fruitful and fulfilling, as well.

Masa Hunley of Philadelphia eagerly anticipates the time she spends with Deborah Washington, a Senior Companion Program volunteer. Washington, a retired mail carrier with the U.S. Postal Service, was active before retirement and saw no reason to slow down after leaving full-time work. She was paired with Hunley three years ago.

Washington thinks of Hunley warmly, “almost as a grandma.” She spends a few hours twice a week with Hunley, helping her with meal prep, getting to appointments, watching television or playing cards together.

Serving as a companion to Hunley is “just something that I enjoy doing, as if it was my mom or my grandmom, who have both passed,” Washington said. “It’s like serving them and praying that, if it was my mom or my grandmom, someone would be doing the same thing. It has to be in your heart.”

Washington is also thankful for the opportunity Hunley provides for “loving up on her” and feels fortunate to be able to soak up the wisdom that Hunley has learned and earned.

To be matched to rewarding volunteer opportunities near you, visit AmeriCorps.gov/YourMoment.