(Note: A slightly different version of this post appears in the November 2013 issue of Stride magazine.)What do you give back to your community—money, goods, professional services? These are worthy gifts, but there is something else most of us can give: our physical resources, our bodily strength and vitality. In some respects, this is the easiest way to give of yourself. It can be simply showing up at someone’s home, picking up a shovel, and throwing snow into piles. It can be walking around with a dog. It can be rock wall climbing with a child in a Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
Like monetary charity and general volunteerism, though, volunteering with your body—let’s call it fitness volunteering—often benefits from careful planning. Sometimes urgent need arises without warning, but be smart about fitness volunteering when you can. The limits of your physical energy and strength are even easier to appreciate viscerally than the limits of your bank account or the hours in a day.
There are all-purpose charity evaluators out there, like charitynavigator.org, but to my knowledge there is no fitness-focused equivalent, no guide to help you decide if a certain organization or cause is an appropriate recipient of your physical resources. So I have developed a brief questionnaire to help you fitness volunteer more thoughtfully.
Fitness Volunteering Questionnaire
1. Is the organization actually a nonprofit? One of my online searches for volunteer opportunities led me to a Fargo-based retirement community seeking “exercise buddy” volunteers. It turned out that the organization is a corporation, not a nonprofit. You may decide an opportunity like this is still worthwhile, but determining an organization’s 501(c) (3) status will help you make a more informed decision.
2. Is there a chance to be hardcore? Whether you even care about this question depends on what you want to get out of fitness volunteering. Stocking food bank shelves is a noble activity, and might in some cases provide a real workout, but there are many types of fitness volunteering that could launch you out of your physical comfort zones. Digging ditches for water conservation projects, for example, could be your chance to be a real badass.
3. Is the timing flexible? Again, this question relates to your priorities. If work needs to be done within a certain time window, it may not align with when you are in top physical form. In that case, you might not be the best candidate for a particular volunteer job—though you’ll still be the best candidate if you are the only candidate. On the other hand, it might be just the challenge you need to exercise when you’re feeling fatigued rather than fresh.
Organization Spotlight (Fargo-Moorhead)
This list of organizations where you can fitness volunteer is a starting point. I limited it to the Fargo-Moorhead area, where I live. If nothing here captures your interest, think of what types of exercise you’re good at (or would like to get better at) and do some research on how you could combine them with volunteering.
1. Humane Society Fargo Moorhead – The Humane Society’s volunteering FAQ states, “In extreme conditions, volunteers can pet the dog inside” instead of walking it. Hmm, sounds to me like a challenge to be hardcore (as long as the animal is up for it).
2. YWCA Cass Clay – Volunteer opportunities include child care (which my experience as a preschool teacher taught me can be quite physically demanding if you play certain games with the kids), yard work at the emergency shelter, moving furniture for women transitioning from the shelter to their own homes, and leading fitness classes.
3. Watch the Wild – This program run by the national nonprofit Nature Abounds needs more volunteers in the Fargo area. Record the observations you make on nature hikes for the Nature Abounds database.
4. River Keepers – According to project coordinator Christine Laney, River Keepers organizes canoe trips for on-the-water clean-up of the Red River “anytime river levels allow, preferably for a couple of hours.”
5. Your neighbors or any nonprofit in the winter – My parents still do all their snow removal the old-fashioned way, which I really admire. Occasionally I’m visiting them when it snows, so I know how tough a cardio and back workout shoveling can be. If none of your neighbors need help with snow removal, contact local nonprofits to see if they could use a hand.