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Volunteering: a cornerstone of recovery

August 23, 2013
by Izaak L. Williams
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Community service can be a valued element of a recovery lifestyle. The value of volunteering is readily apparent in the words of those whom it has assisted during recovery, as the following representative examples from clients attest:

“Volunteering helps me stay grounded in the community.”

“I was able to network and get a job.”

I learned the importance of responsibility.”

“Volunteering made me believe that I can work a full-time job.”

“By volunteering I am able to give back and feel good about myself.”

“I met new people and developed friendships that are now part of my clean and sober support.”

These statements from clients reveal that community service is a “product” that addiction counselors can “sell” to clients to help them achieve forward movement in their life and strengthen their personal recovery program. What follows is a list of selling points.

Getting one’s foot in the door

After applying for a job, a client may simply sit on his/her hands, waiting for an offer. This is more likely to happen with clients who feel drained by the idea of putting any additional effort into a job search, especially if they believe that they have run out of options. This static state is euphemistically referred to as “playing the waiting game.” As time passes, however, emotional distress and social pressures can quickly fuel the temptation to use, or to give up on further efforts at securing employment.

Volunteering helps to offset that sense of stagnation. And in many cases it helps the individual get a foot in the door at an institution broadly aligned with his/her value system—volunteering time at an animal shelter, or refereeing youth sports, or reading to children at a local library.

Although a volunteer stint hardly constitutes a silver bullet for ending unemployment, volunteering can deliver dividends by increasing one’s chances of obtaining a job. It also can help clients close an unemployment gap in their work history, build stronger employment referrals, and develop credible job references, all of which create inroads into the job market.

Bidding for personal/professional development

The demands of volunteer work simulate those found in many jobs, affording volunteers a better sense of what it actually would be like to return to work. Clients are exposed to role models for new behaviors, new ways of thinking and new ways of modulating emotions. Additional benefits include learning how to manage time properly, and prioritizing one’s personal schedule outside of treatment to accommodate a volunteer schedule.

Clients thereby learn how to adapt socially to a recovery-oriented lifestyle, in the process growing accustomed to talking with a diverse crowd of people, some of whom may never have had a history of addiction. This exposure can help clients develop a more expansive and versatile set of social skills, as well as a broader support system. This can translate into a real eye-opener for some clients in terms of illuminating the extent of personal problem areas that need to be tackled.