When You Volunteer, Who Really Wins?

Feb 5, 2013 / By Peter Dean

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Throughout my career, like most people, I’ve seen a number of HR programs that fall under the banner of employee wellness. As I approach a milestone birthday and celebrate my 30th year in high tech, health and wellness have become more and more important to me. Age gives us the perspective to value our own well-being for personal and professional reasons.

One of the many programs that Pythian employees benefit from is our Volunteer Day Program, where each employee is provided with a day off each year to give back to their community. How a Volunteer Day gets used is open to the employee. Some employees work on charitable causes or participate in charitable events. Some work with local organizations that they’re affiliated with. The name “Volunteer Day” actually made me think about how and where I should invest my day in some selfless way.

As the father of two teenage girls, I looked for an opportunity to remain involved in their lives by using my Volunteer Day. It’s harder as they grow older, and as a doting Dad, I seem to grow more embarrassing for them to have around! But I’m pleased to report that my bond with them is strong enough that they were excited about my idea and at the thought of me being around for a day.

My youngest daughter is 13 and in Grade 8, and my Volunteer Day started off in her classroom at school. The school had just made an investment in some video equipment including a camera, some lighting, and a green screen. What they lacked was experience in creating, editing, and publishing video.  Fortunately, this played to one of my strengths.  Throughout the morning, I taught them about the process, the roles and responsibilities, and the importance of each cog in the production engine, whether you’re making a small video with a classroom or a full scale movie production. As each role was described, we had the kids (by a show of hands) indicate which ones were of interest to them.

We live in a rural area outside of Ottawa, and a small public school serves our community to the tune of 140 students, and I have the luxury of knowing the kids because they’ve been classmates to my daughters for several years. I’ve coached these kids in soccer, watched them win the district volleyball title, stood and clapped teary-eyed at their Christmas concerts and talent shows – needless to say, they know who I am. If ever my soul needs to feed, I’ll just go spend the morning with them. We laughed and learned. I left at about 11 o’clock already feeling like this was a special day.

My next stop was my 16-year-old’s daughter’s Grade Eleven class. She was taking a Business class focused on entrepreneurs. Out in the county where we live, many kids assume the reins of a family business, and the entrepreneurship course gives them a peek ahead so they can identify some of the challenges and successes that may lie when they enter the business world. I’ve had the good fortune, as I do right now, to work in a number of entrepreneurial environments, and over the course of the Business class I presented six lessons that will help the kids be effective in business and maintain a good work-life balance.  After the lecture we went around the room, and each of the budding entrepreneurs talked about the business they hope to start, the business they were going to inherit, or the family business that they were going to join.

When you deliver a session that is born largely of your experience and observations, you wonder whether or not you reach your audience. The expression on the face of the typical high school student is often a hard one to decode, and while it was fun to go in and exercise the teaching muscles, I ultimately wanted to know that I had made a difference.

For me, the return came later that night. My daughter is the apple of my eye and she’s a quiet shy gal who makes friends easily but is not always comfortable breaking the ice. That night she had several requests for new Facebook friends from people in her Business class, and she proudly brought me her phone to show me all the new friends she added along with words of gratitude for the time I spent. Feeling I had more knowledge worth sharing, two of them asked her if I would mind giving them some one-on-one advice based on a desire to to start their businesses early.  As I type this blog post a month later, my daughter’s social circle remains increased, but the look in her eyes that night as she held her phone up for me to see all the new friends was the tallest I’ve felt in a long time.

I returned back to the Grade 8 class later that afternoon and challenged them to make a video with the skills they learned that morning. We went back through all the roles and took volunteers for lighting, camerawork, directing, scripting, acting, editing, and all of the other jobs necessary to create a filmed production.  With it being December, we decided to make a Christmas video. We did some action shots around the school, in the halls, on the playground, in the gym, and anywhere else we could go make a lot of noise with minimal disruption.  One of the participants described the experience as “crazy fun”, and I can’t wait to go back and show them all the results of their creative efforts once the editing is done.

In our lives, we have days that are life-changing and special. Marrying my sweetheart, becoming a father – these are my best days. But if that’s true, then my life has peaked, and I don’t believe that at all. As parents, we have a responsibility to raise our children to become good citizens with solid values and to see every possible open door in front of them. Using the Volunteer Day generously offered by Pythian not only gave me an incredible, fun day of sharing and learning with two groups of great kids, but also gave me a great checkpoint. It’s with renewed sense of pride that I’m fulfilling my mission as a father. How can that not be one of my best days?

What did my Volunteer Day teach me? I went in thinking I was being selfless, giving the kids a fun day and teaching them some new lessons.  But what I got out of it as a parent and a human being far exceeds anything that can be encapsulated in the confines of an online post.  I came back to work a relaxed man with a great story to tell, precious memories to store, and an appreciation for what giving back really means.

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