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Kerry A. RobinsonApril 18, 2024
A file photo shows staff and volunteers organize food in the basement of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York's community center in the South Bronx. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Four years ago, we celebrated our daughter’s graduation from college with as much creativity as possible to overcome the unusual circumstances and overwhelming disappointment that members of the Class of 2020 all over the world experienced.  

Covid-19 resulted in a chaotic and lonely end to millions of students’ final semester of college. Sophie was understandably disconsolate when she learned on spring break that she could not return to campus or see her friends, classmates and professors in person. Resourcefully, she turned her sorrow into service, by volunteering to deliver groceries to newly resettled refugee families while completing her final semester online.

I was reminded of this extraordinary antidote to despondency when I was invited by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington to address high school student leaders who have inspired their classmates to dedicate time to service. Their attentive listening, insightful questions and enthusiasm caused me to marvel at how quickly in their young lives they have figured out the secret of life: being a beneficial presence in the world.

As president and C.E.O. of Catholic Charities USA, I have visited local Catholic Charities agencies all over the country to witness their service to the most vulnerable members of their communities. From agency to agency, one constant has been the indispensable presence of volunteers in this urgent work.

It is a reminder of an uplifting truth: Volunteering nourishes the soul. As we grapple with fragmentation, political polarization and rising distrust in institutions, a national embrace of volunteerism could go a long way toward healing what ails us as a society. 

Last year, the U.S. surgeon general published “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” a sobering report documenting alarming levels of isolation and social detachment nationwide that are directly associated with poor physical and mental health outcomes. Any increase in in-person socializing would help those who are isolated and dispirited, but community service is a particularly beneficial tool. 

Generosity is humankind’s birthright, and volunteer work allows us to be generous with our most valuable assets: our time and attention. Central to Christianity is a disposition of other-centeredness that helps us be less solipsistic. All the volunteers I encounter say to me that, paradoxically, they are the true beneficiaries of their encounters with others in merciful service.  

Of course, a broad increase in volunteer work would also directly benefit people in need. Nonprofit organizations provide critical services to every vulnerable population one can imagine, and volunteers play a crucial role in this work. Across the Catholic Charities’ nationwide network, we have 45,000 staff members and 215,000 volunteers. Thanks to their collective efforts, the network serves 15 million people each year. We could not do this work without our volunteers.

Studies from the Generosity Commission and the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute speak to the urgency of the need. In 2023, nearly two-thirds of nonprofits reported experiencing an increase in demand for their services. Simultaneously, the percentage of Americans engaging in formal volunteer work has precipitously declined. A concerted effort to engage in and promote volunteer work across the country would lead to a greater percentage of people in need receiving the support they deserve. 

As the surgeon general’s report shows, isolation and loneliness threaten the well-being not only of individuals but of our society as a whole. Higher levels of social connection in communities are correlated with better societal health outcomes, disaster preparedness, community safety, economic prosperity and civic engagement. To that end, Catholic Charities USA recently partnered with Habitat for Humanity International, Interfaith America and Y.M.C.A. of the U.S.A. to launch the Team Up Project, a national effort to heal our divisions and promote bridge-building opportunities in local communities. 

I have spent my life in the company of people who have devoted themselves to service and the alleviation of human suffering. Without such people, our world would be bereft of mercy, hope, charity and justice. And we would not have the compelling example of purpose, meaning, enthusiasm and joy to which their lives of service attest.

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