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When I realized volunteering wasn’t about me

Our co-founder Shannon explores her volunteerism journey, and how she went from "what's in it for me" to "How can I be a part of the solution?" Now serving as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, the importance of giving back is clearer to her than ever before.

I don’t know about you, but when I was in high school, my parents made it clear that every single decision I made would directly impact the rest of my life. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration but I’m sure that it at least felt that way. More specifically, I felt like if I didn’t get good grades, wasn’t in the National Honor Society, or involved in at least three extracurricular activities - I’d wind up never getting accepted to a “good college”, and live in my parents basement until my 50s. Volunteering was something I did because I wanted to look good to admissions counselors, not something I did out of the kindness of my heart.

Similarly, when I got to my “good college”, I wasn’t doing community service because of my own kindness, but rather because I knew it would look good. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the service work or find value in it; quite the opposite actually. Almost nothing beats the joy from hours spent socializing with puppies AND getting college credit. But let’s be honest, I was really just in it for the puppies. All of that is to say, my motivation for giving back was always pretty self-centered. Before I’d commit to anything, I’d spend hours investigating the same questions: How hard will this be? Do I have to commit weeks or months of my life? Is there a chance I can make new friends? What’s in it for me? It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that I started to recognize that my focus was on all the wrong things. 

Anyone who knows anything about the Bay Area knows that it’s home to the biggest tech companies in the world. It often feels like the gap between the wealthy and the not wealthy grows larger by the second. For context, in the last two years, the homeless population has increased by 30% with nearly 10,000 homeless residents in a city that is merely 49 square miles. Coming from Chicago, a city as diverse as it is large, it’s incredibly frustrating to see that the majority of the people of color that you see each day are homeless. It’s both isolating and infuriating. In this moment, I no longer wanted to spend my time wondering what volunteering could do for me, I finally wanted to know what I could do for others. How could I be a part of the solution?

After a lengthy search, I decided that an organization that was fighting to prevent poverty and homelessneess through support, education, and resources, would be the best fit for me. Quickly after, I was connected with a friend’s mom who works as the Executive Director of the Sonoma County CASA organization. Within days, I was sitting in an info-session learning how I could become a CASA. For those unfamiliar with CASA, it is a national organization that supports and promotes court-appointed advocates for abused or neglected children. Their services work to keep foster-youth off of the streets and in safe and healthy environments and homes.

Becoming a CASA was definitely a bigger undertaking than I initially anticipated. Before you’re appointed, you have to complete 40 hours of training over 6-8 weeks. And, as someone who was transitioning from “what’s in it for me?” to “how can I be a part of the solution?” this was a pretty tall ask. Almost immediately I wondered would this be engaging or just hours of bland information dissemination. What I found out later is that the time sacrifice to learn about the ins and outs of foster care is by design. Each week in training we would peel back another layer of the system, hear from other CASAs, and truly understand why the work is so important. By the time training ended, I had a clear understanding of what my contributions could bring to the life of a young person and how much of a life-changing experience it would be. Ultimately, through my journey I would learn that helping others and myself are not mutually exclusive experiences. 

Perhaps you can relate to my volunteerism journey, or maybe you’re more like Greta Thunberg - selflessly turning your passion into action from a young age. Either way, I think many of us who come from privileged backgrounds struggle to see the forest for the trees. So often we can get bogged down in the details of what it is that we’re doing, or how long it’ll take to make long-lasting change, that we forget about the impact we have the ability to make right now. My hope, however, is that the easier it becomes to get out there to make an impact, that our focus shifts to the important role we each play in making our communities stronger. That’s not just our mission at DiveIn, but my hope for the generations to come.


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