Help Others, Help Yourself

Laura Mitchell's picture
By Laura Mitchell on December 21, 2017

More than 62 million adults in the U.S. spend time volunteering in their community every year. While their generosity and commitment undoubtedly help the organizations and individuals they support, most of them probably don’t realize the positive impact their outward actions have on their own bodies.

Research has shown that altruism stimulates the same reward centers of the brain associated with food and sex. Measurable physical and mental benefits to volunteering include:

  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Decreased risk of hypertension
  • Increased production of oxytocin
  • Reduced anxiety and stress
  • Reduced symptoms of depression

In a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, volunteers attributed their positive feelings to:

  • Having a positive impact on someone’s life
  • Developing community bonds
  • Forging social connections

Committing to a volunteer position or project requires time, flexibility and sometimes funding. The good news is that you don’t have to have those in abundance. It turns out that the type of altruism a person engages in, from committing to a project to donating money to buying coffee for a stranger, has little effect on the positive benefits they receive. Any kind of helpful act can create benefits.

Volunteering at Carilion Clinic
Across the 20 counties and 1 million people it serves, Carilion Clinic is a hub of volunteerism, from the community members who donate their time and resources in support of our patients and their families, to the many thousands of hours of volunteer time freely given locally, nationwide and internationally by Carilion employees. Some of our volunteers share their thoughts in the video below.

We also spoke with several Carilion Clinic employees to learn how they integrate volunteering into their professional and personal lives—and how they benefit from those efforts.

Volunteering Around the World
For Andre and Penelope Muelenaer, volunteering is an integral part of their family life. Andre Muelenaer, M.D., is the chief of Pediatric Pulmonology at Carilion Children's, and both he and Penelope Muelenaer, M.D., M.P.H., teach pediatric medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. As a physician thought leader, Penelope also serves as an advisor for medical students. They both travel extensively with research and student/faculty teams to educate and collaborate with local leaders and organizations around the world to develop sustainable solutions to persistent community health challenges.

As a specialist at Carilion Children’s, Dr. Andre Muelenaer is focused on patient care. His volunteer work provides balance by giving him an opportunity to address public health issues on a larger scale.

“While seeing individual patients is important, working at the policy level with pharmaceutical companies, the U.S. Agency for International Development, ministries of health and philanthropic divisions of companies such as the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation [has enabled us to] contribute to significant impact in low- and middle-income countries worldwide,” he said.

He gave several examples of the impact of their work:

  • One shipment of medications to Kenya treated 100,000 patients
  • Through a partnership with Vitamin Angels, prenatal vitamins were provided to support every pregnant woman in the Dominican Republic
  • Famine victims in Malawi have been fed
  • Several hundred physicians have received up-to-date education on a variety of topics
  • Hundreds of Uzbeki women and children living in Kyrgyzstan received counseling after suffering post-traumatic stress disorder due to ethnic violence

Dr. Muelenaer cautions volunteers to resist the urge to make promises they may not be able to keep.

“Resources are always limited,” he said. “We remind ourselves that it’s about the people we serve, and the individual impact we make.”

He encourages potential volunteers to learn about community-based opportunities, where the beneficiary is at the table and participating.

“Be sure that you are not enabling dependence,” he said. “Rather that you are promoting sustainable independence. And respect the privacy and dignity of vulnerable populations.”

Volunteering in the Community
Donna Deadrick, B.S.N., C.P.N., is the clinical team leader at Carilion Children’s Pediatric Clinic in Roanoke. Her team of nurses and other health care professionals work both together and individually in activities ranging from the JDRF walk and Drumstick Dash to recruiting volunteers of their own for Reach Out & Read.

“Our staff are really involved and interested in helping in the community,” she said. "For us it’s community service but also team building as well.”

The team also works together to find ways to help the families they care for beyond their immediate clinical needs.

“Several of our staff volunteer together to serve meals at the Rescue Mission,” she said. “We really enjoy that because quite a few of our patient families are staying there.”

For Christmas this year, the office teamed up to support a family with five children that is currently staying at the Rescue Mission.

“Everyone in our office is so kindhearted and interested in being connected in the community.”

The team sees their work as a natural complement to their profession. Roanoke is only one of two locations in state that have a chapter of the Society of Pediatric Nurses. They provide continuing education opportunities to nursing staff, but they also engage their members in pediatric-related community activities, such as preparing meals for the local Ronald McDonald House.

“By nature, nurses tend to be a nurturing type,” says Donna.

When asked about the downsides of volunteering, she laughed.

“For somebody who has small children, there may be a potential for burnout. For me, though, I sometimes feel I’m not doing enough.”

Donna advises potential volunteers to choose something they are passionate about and enjoy.

"And select something that can really make a difference.”

Taking Care of the Volunteer (You)
For two decades as a broadcast journalist, news anchor and local celebrity, Karen McNew McGuire served the community in a variety of ways—from emceeing events to serving on nonprofit boards and planning committees to promoting and fundraising for races and other events. Now a senior consultant with Carilion Clinic’s marketing department, she has scaled back her volunteering to give more balance to her life.

“Saying ‘no’ has traditionally been difficult for me, and it is easy to get caught in planning cycles for events—when one is successful, requests come in for help with others,” she said.

Devoting her energy to others days, nights and weekends took a toll.

“I have always been gratified by the knowledge that I have somehow made a small positive difference for others,” she said. “But I realized that I was so busy volunteering that my job and my family were not getting the attention they deserved and that I wanted to give them both.”

She advises potential volunteers to consider their spare time and their priorities when deciding on a cause, event or project to support.

“Set boundaries from the beginning about your flexibility of schedule and expectations you have regarding your role,” she said. “People will never ask you to do less, so learn to politely say no when you are feeling stretched too thin. Above all else, when your volunteer work stops being fun and satisfying, it may be time to re-evaluate, take a break and see if your time and skills would be utilized elsewhere.”

Experienced and long-term volunteers are a rare commodity, and they provide tremendous value to organizations with tight budgets and limited resources. So taking care of yourself now does not mean you are not doing enough—rather it means you are able to return rested and ready to do more good.

Carilion Clinic is one of many organizations that provide a variety of opportunities for volunteers of all ages and abilities. Visit to learn more if you are interested in volunteering at Carilion.