How volunteering can make you healthier and happier

When Rebecca Field Jagger’s marriage fell apart, she found that volunteering helped her heal

How volunteering can make you healthier and happier

Source: Best Health Magazine, November/December 2009

Making a life change

In the summer of 2008, as a 45-year-old empty nester, seemingly happily married but bored with the burbs, I decided to realize my lifelong dream of living and working in the big city. To me my plan was brilliant: As a freelance journalist, I’d pen stories all week for newspapers and magazines at the swanky condo I’d rented from May to the end of September in downtown Toronto, and then reunite with hubby on weekends at our home in Burlington, Ont. At first, my husband was taken aback, but he slowly warmed to the idea. By the time he helped me move out, he seemed almost too eager to see me go. We’d been butting heads for the past several months, however, so I figured that, like me, he was looking forward to a break. It was just for a few months, after all.

My career was in full swing by the time my condo lease expired at the end of the summer; my marriage, however, was crumbling. At one point during our time apart, my husband confessed that he was having doubts about our marriage.

But I wasn’t ready to let go. Surely a few months of pseudo separation couldn’t undo years of togetherness, I thought optimistically. I moved home and found out that it could. After much soul-searching and several stilted conversations, we agreed that a trial separation was necessary. In January of 2009, I moved back to the city with a heavy heart.

Needing to belong

Shortly after moving into a 1920s low-rise apartment in the heart of Toronto, I began roaming the snowy streets exploring my new ‘hood. During my walkabouts, I frequently passed by 6 St. Joseph House, a brownstone just a few doors down from where I lived.

A community resource centre, it’s a place where those struggling with mental health issues, addiction, financial hardship and/or homelessness can find support and comfort. A sign out front welcomes volunteers. Being cut off from my old life had left me feeling lonely, and I needed to feel part of something. Maybe this was it.

Despite its cheerful curb appeal, I felt too intimidated to walk in. My reticence baffled me’it’s not like I’m shy or haven’t done volunteer work. I’ve served on boards, and put off plenty of neighbours by campaigning for charities door to door. But I’ve also thrown my cynical two cents into conversations about welfare recipients and stepped over the legs of the homeless without tossing them a coin. Would I pass through that door as a do-gooder or a hypocrite?

When I called the House to ask about volunteering, Darlene Desveaux, the manager, invited me to drop by the next day for Community Meal, a hot lunch at which everyone gathers and shares the fellowship of breaking bread. ‘Just come and check it out,’ she encouraged me. ‘We want our volunteers to get a sense of what we’re all about so they can determine where they think they’d like to help out. Just coming and sitting down to share a meal with everyone here is helpful in itself.’

Volunteering made me part of a community

The first time I set foot in the House, it was as if I were visiting the home of someone who was hosting a casual afternoon get-together. Basking in the warmth of the sunlight pouring through the large bay window, men and women sat chatting in comfy chairs or on the sofa, sipping mugs of coffee or tea.

Soon after Darlene and I found each other, she introduced me to several people. I noticed that she made no distinction between those there to help out and those there out of need. Later, she told me that everyone at the House was considered a volunteer, everyone was there to pitch in.

Before I knew it I was engaged in conver­sations with those around me; over time, I connected with others there to lend a hand.

I grew to know the names of those who showed up at the House regularly, as well as their tragic tales and the ups and downs of their everyday lives. One fellow was struggling to stay on his medication; it messed him up, he said. A woman my age credited the House with helping her stay off the bottle. A senior citizen admitted he was haunted by a childhood of beatings and neglect.

Slowly but surely I became part of this community. I didn’t do much’helped to get the meal on the table, pitched in with the newsletter’so it wasn’t a feeling of being needed that established my connection but, rather, a feeling of contributing. My gestures, however small, were valued and appreciated.

How volunteering helped me heal

Did the hardships of others stop me from feeling sorry for myself? Yes, somewhat, but I still hosted private pity parties alone in my apartment. Gradually, however, my self-pity turned to hope. The House hums with the affirmation that we can get through anything.

As the months wore on, like most people in the throes of a separation, I had good days and bad. I could be elated coming in from an evening out with friends only to find myself sobbing into the empty pillow next to mine.

I talked endlessly to my mother on the phone. Did you know, I once asked her, that you can miss someone or something so much that you can taste it? That you can wake up in the morning with tears in your eyes? But I also told her about the lightness of heart I experienced once or twice a week when I walked through the door of 6 St. Joseph House.

Moving forward as a volunteer

During this time, my husband and I made a few attempts to reconcile but, sadly, the thing that was us was gone. Today, as I write this, I am once again living in my suburban home but he has moved out; I returned to oversee the sale of the house. Soon, a family will live here, and the thought of giggling children running around while their parents try to catch a few moments of peace on our glorious deck brings me enormous pleasure. This tells me I am ready to leave.

When I move back to the city in the coming months, I will make visiting the House a part of my regular routine. In the words of Canada’s chief public health officer, David Butler-Jones, ‘It’s no coincidence that those who volunteer, who give of themselves and who take an active part in their community end up, on average, healthier and happier.’

But for me, it’s not just that. Even during the brighter days ahead, I will continue to value the connection that took root during a long and lonely winter. How can I not long to be among the men and women who, as it turns out, volunteered to help me?

This article was originally titled "How helping out helped me," in the November/December 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.