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Faith-based service impacts future of volunteers

Published: Sunday, Nov. 17 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

College students from Illinois and Wisconsin erect a wall for a home in Clay County, Kent., earlier this year during the Christian Appalachian Project's WorkFest, a member program of the Catholic Volunteer Network.

Catholic Volunteer Network

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Gordon Wong remembers gazing at a sunset in El Salvador when he "caught the bug" to do service.

After a long day of building foundations for homes on land purchased by the local Catholic diocese, the then-16-year-old high school student from Boston put his shovel down and noticed a leafless tree silhouetted by the evening sun.

"I don't know if it was the malaria medicine or how much I was sweating, but I got this feeling in my gut that this was right. This was the right thing to do, and I wanted to do more," recalls Wong, who now recruits college students to sign up for the Catholic Volunteer Network and spend several months to three years serving through a domestic or international faith-based community service program.

And if Wong's personal witness isn't enough to sell other students on forgoing a year or more of income or education to work with the poor, he now has reams of data on how a period of volunteer service impacted the lives of CVN alumni.

As part of its 50th anniversary, the network surveyed more than 5,000 past volunteers to learn how their lives were affected by the time they spent helping distribute food and clothing to the homeless, teach low-income adults life skills, build or repair homes and other services.

"We heard these experiences had had an impact on (the volunteers) but we hadn’t measured that in any discernible way," said Jim Lindsay, executive director of CVN. "So, we were interested in knowing how does a period of volunteer service impact career choices, civic engagement, spiritual growth and just basic human development."

The responses from CVN alumni confirmed the anecdotal evidence Lindsay had been hearing in his 18 years at the network — that the volunteer experience was transformational and influenced their future decisions and conduct:

• More than two-thirds of former volunteers (67 percent) say their volunteer service was either “somewhat” or “very” important in influencing their choice of career.

• Overwhelming majorities (78 percent to 94 percent) said their service made them a better person. The percentage increased according to how long ago the volunteer served.

• Almost six in 10 former volunteers (57 percent) have a master’s degree or higher.

• Weekly attendance at religious services among former volunteers was 46 percent compared with 27 percent for the general U.S. population.

• More than eight in 10 former volunteers (82 percent) say that they have volunteered time, donated money or property, or both, in the past 12 months.

• During the 2012 election, 44 percent of former volunteers spoke to people and explained why they should vote for one of the candidates.

Faith-based vs. secular

Lindsay acknowledges he is not a sociologist and that the study doesn't claim that volunteer service directly causes certain types of outcome in the future. "But I do think that some of the differences (with the general population) … are so striking that they can't be easily explained as a random kind of thing," he said.

Social science has confirmed the positive impact donating money or time to causes has on the volunteer. A recent study of volunteers who helped with the cleanup of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 found that volunteers with an altruistic or spiritual foundation, or both, could better cope with the trauma and stress of helping others affected by a disaster.

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