I believe that everything in this life and in this world comes from somewhere. What we experience through our five senses and its consequences of logic and emotions are rooted somewhere, however mysterious and deeply hidden in thinking about my activities and passion for community involvement, my spirit for volunteering must comes from somewhere as well.
For me, there exists an almost innate desire to connect and communicate with others; there is an undeniable drive in my nature to become intertwined with the community and to participate in it. This said, why volunteer? For sure, there are many ways to become an active member of the community, not necessarily by doing “work”.
Presently, there is even some social stigma about volunteering – particularly when public figures are engaged in it – that can be more negative than positives. Perhaps rooted in professional rivalry and jealousy, charitable work might be interpreted as a publicity scheme for the celebrity, or in other instances, as a way to “save” oneself. In other words, the volunteering act is seen as a way of closing the gap between the person’s past and present conditions, or in between one’s former hardship and his or her current success and fortune. The tabloids showcase an actor or famous person working in social services, setting the stage around the circumstances where he or she had once been. A case in point might be the headline: “So-and-so speaks to teenagers about drugs while sharing her as-yet-untold personal story – exclusive!”
But volunteering is not just about the rich and famous “helping out.” The answer to “Why volunteer”? varies for each individual. Moreover, there are myriad reasons for continuing such charitable efforts.
I was twenty years old when I set up my first non-profit organization in the U.S. At the time, I was fortunate in that certain conditions presented themselves to me in the right combination: the influence of role models, the ability to utilize my cultivated talents and education, and a community that, for the most part, found my ideas and initiatives worthwhile.
My performing career had started early–in my pre-teens – offering invaluable learning opportunities to me at a very young age. Social and life-training complemented the academic studies received through regular schooling. I had the experiences of becoming aware of the existence of diverse communities through my travels, being exposed to a range of traditions and feeling powerless in the midst of a cultural conflict. All of these, in addition to a bicultural home life, played important roles in forming my identity.
Furthermore, learning music had instilled a strong disciplinary ethic in me as well as a personal value system away from materialism. It taught me about collaborative effort alongside creativity and generosity of spirit. All of these, I can now see, were potent ingredients pointing me in the direction of working in the community. These qualities propelled me to go beyond my immediate life of performing on concert stages. The most important lesson I learned was that music cannot be contained, and that musicians cannot deliver music into a void. So, in this way, getting involved in community was a natural by-product of my music lessons.
My very first organization was started with a simple idea: to bring music to children. This was the impetus to create Midori & Friends, in itself a reaction to the current events affecting the music field. In the 1980s and early ‘90s there was a great deal of discussion concerning federal budget cuts to public education and their effects on the availability of the arts and music programs to children in the schools. Growing up as I did, I heard my older colleagues’ concerns about the decline of music education. My reaction was to become actively involved–hands on–in addressing the issue.
Volunteering is defined by being engaged in an activity done “in recognition of a need, with an attitude of social responsibility without concern for monetary profit, going beyond what is necessary to one’s physical well-being.” (Susan J. Ellis and Katherin H. Noyes, in By the People: A History of Americans as Volunteers, Philadelphia, 1978). Charitable work, on the other hand, is defined more broadly, and includes “giving” besides “volunteering”. As such, it includes financial contribution to a certain cause or activity.
There is almost a philosophical question, “Is it possible to be engaged in volunteer work without any gain?”, along the lines of “What is Truth?” and “Does Truth exist?” The conclusion is neither definitive nor simple.
I have found that one who volunteers inevitably receives something in return, despite the primary aim of such work being the complete opposite. In this sense there is no absolute altruistic act, but what we do is merely an effort of good deed without financial gain.
First, I learn so much from the experience. I entered the arena of non-profit work with an egotistical stance of wanting to do what I could in my own realm of possibility. Almost immediately I realized how very little and small “what I can” and “my realm” were. But littleand small are not the same as nothing. Nothing cannot be multiplied intoanything, but little can be nurtured into something bigger. Coming to terms with the smallness of one’s attempted good deed is a humbling experience, which further motivates me to learn.
Second, by engaging in so-called volunteering, I have an opportunity to challenge and to re-evaluate my passion. The “return” for a good free deed is one’s own reaction. This allows for an examination of the passion itself. There are no strings attached to continue the given activity, but when something propels you to continue your involvement, there indeed exists a passion that cannot be stifled.
The final word is that an act of volunteering is one of receiving. We receive, therefore we are able to give, and this enhances our potential to go beyond ourselves and contribute to the greater good.
Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders