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.
Amy Ai, a sociologist at Florida State University and co-author of the study, said an analysis of the long-term impacts of volunteer service after Katrina has not been completed. But she agreed that a spiritual grounding could result in volunteer service influencing their spiritual life in the future.
"People become more religious because they have been challenged," Ai said, "and some people become less religious because they ask the question, 'Why did God allowed this to happen’ ” to the people needing help.
While some people would prefer volunteering through government or secular programs, Lindsay believes that faith-based service offers an added dimension that volunteers carry with them throughout their lives.
"Unlike other programs where the focus is entirely on the work you are doing, ours are very holistic in that they incorporate things like community living, prayer, reflection, spirituality," he said. "You are not just doing the work, which is important, but reflecting on how the experience is impacting your faith and your life."
CVN connects some 20,000 volunteers annually with about 220 faith-based organizations doing volunteer work in 48 states and 112 countries. More than 70 percent of the organizations are Catholic, while the others are run by Christian churches.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University conducted the survey and made the national comparisons with U.S. Census data and other national surveys. Lindsay said CARA also asked some demographic questions that it usually asks when doing survey work for other Catholic organizations.
Lindsay, a former Franciscan friar with a divinity degree from Catholic University of America, said he was most interested in the religious activity of former volunteers.
For example, the survey found 67 percent of former volunteers who were raised Catholic remain Catholic today. According to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of the U.S. adult population reported being Catholic in 2007.
"Overall, the survey presented our alumni in a very favorable light in terms of their involvement in their places of worship," Lindsay said, "but also in terms of their charitable giving, ongoing volunteerism and civic engagement."
Wong, who is Episcopalian, followed through on his "gut feeling" and volunteered to help with Hurricane Katrina cleanup in Louisiana.
"That’s where I found out that service isn’t just what you do for others, but having a conversation with people can be more impactful than picking up a hammer," he said. "Those experiences taught me about the power of relationships. You work for someone but you walk with them as well."
He had friends at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., who had the same interests in service, and after graduation he decided to spend his first year out of school volunteering for the Amate House in a leadership training program in Chicago.
His parents weren't too thrilled, however, about the idea of their son working for free after earning an expensive four-year college degree.
"It took awhile for my parents to get on board," Wong, now a 24-year-old religious studies graduate, said. "When I first mentioned volunteer work, it came across like I was pursuing a hobby."
Lindsay said pushback from parents is understandable, particularly if a student accumulated student loan debt. But he said he can now respond with survey findings that say CVN alumni prosper after their service.
Only 23 percent of former volunteers reported earning a household income of $35,000 or less, compared with 35 percent of U.S. households. Three-fourths of former volunteers were either employed full-time or part-time.
"I look at the survey and say look at all the wonderful things that can happen," he said. "They are more educated, they make more money, they continue to be involved in their church, they are a meaningful part of society by continuing their volunteerism."
That comes as no surprise to Scott Marsh, a financial planner who also teaches the subject as an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University. He said he advises students to put "fingerprints" of volunteer service on their resumes to show prospective employers they have core values that are broader than those of the average person.
"I can't tell you how critical that is for your prosperity, your growth and your future," Marsh said, "to have a period of time to set into motion a completeness and a vision of what (life) all means."
He cited research by social scientist and economist Arthur Brooks, who set out to prove that those who donate money first had to have the resources to do it. He found that was true, but he also discovered those who didn't have the money were just as generous.
Hoping to find some answers as to why someone with little means would be compelled to donate, he ran his findings by a colleague who specialized in the psychology of charitable giving. The friend told him that people are happier when they give of their time or money to causes they believe in.
"It turns out that the data on happiness and charitable giving are beyond dispute," Brooks told an audience at BYU in 2009. "People who give to charity are 43 percent more likely than people who don’t give to say they’re very happy people. People who give blood are twice as likely to say they’re very happy people as people who don’t give blood. People who volunteer are happier. The list goes on. You simply can’t find any kind of service that won’t make you happier."
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