Volunteering Sucks. But It’s Also Kind of Awesome.

Happy Friday, lovely people!

Today I’m going to talk to you about volunteering and how awesome it is.

And by awesome, I really mean … 

Inconvenient, thankless, frustrating, gritty, and a total pain in the ass! (But then somehow if you grit through all of this, that’s when the awesome and wickedly satisfying bits come in 😀.)

I’ve been volunteering for almost two years for just a few hours per week at Meals on Wheels.

If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a volunteer program that gets average people like me delivering meals to homebound people in the community.

My job is to drive around and deliver nutritious meals to people who can’t source food for themselves. It’s definitely not a glamorous volunteer opportunity, but I continue to show up each week and work my hardest.

Like any hard work in life, you can complain and focus on all the negative things, OR you can smile and focus on all the positive things! Volunteering is about looking on the bright side, because your attitude determines your experience. 

Here’s what I do, the goods and bads of working for free, and some fun stories I’ve collected along the way …

(Oh, and if you want to sign up, too, here’s how to volunteer for Meals on Wheels.)

Delivering for Meals on Wheels

My job is to drive around Santa Monica and deliver meals to homebound people. Some of the meal recipients are sick or bedridden, some live in poverty, but most are just older adults. In addition to dropping off a meal, I also do a friendly visit and a quick safety check-in to make sure all is OK. (I also like to sneak in a few dad jokes sometimes because many people are craving human connection and I’m often the only person they see the entire day.)

In my first year as a volunteer driver, I was assigned a different delivery route each week. This kept things interesting, brought me to different areas of the city, and exposed me to all types of diverse situations. This year I have a regular route, delivering to the same people each week. I try and take whatever is thrown at me.

This is what the food looks like. Each client gets a hot meal, cold sandwich, juices, milk and various snacks. Some special clients also get frozen meals for weekends or additional needs.

Delivery volunteers use their own cars and sort the food into individual bags before each drop-off. We used to help with other minor admin tasks before and after shifts, but since the covid 19 pandemic hit, safety measures have been put in at the headquarters facility with strict social distancing.

The Sucky Side of Volunteering to Deliver Meals

I try my hardest to focus on the positive stuff, but I’d be lying if I said volunteering was always fun. There are downsides, and this is probably why most people don’t volunteer.

It’s inconvenient. There is always something more fun I could be doing instead. Like last Friday my friend asked me to go surfing with him in Malibu, but I couldn’t because I committed to volunteering that day. Fun things like this pop up every week, but making a commitment to volunteering regularly means saying no to these other things. Giving up spare time is hard.

Traffic in LA is terrible. There’s no parking, volunteers have to pay for all our car costs, and fighting the midday traffic during lunch hour can put you in a bad mood pretty quickly.

It’s kind of sad. It can be depressing to see how the clients live. Messy and smelly homes, extreme poverty, etc. It’s hard not to get emotional after visiting people.

Some people are rude :(  Many clients are extremely appreciative for your service. But sadly, some are not. There’s nothing worse than going out of your way to help people who don’t say thank you.

Nonprofits can be unorganized and understaffed. There’s a shortage of truly dedicated volunteers, which puts a strain on the workers who actually show up. Also, the processes and work practices of some nonprofits can be inefficient. It’s really hard to put in 100% when you know sometimes your efforts are being wasted.

I know, I sound like a complainy-pants! All of these “downsides” just highlight how much privilege I have. Plus, dealing with these aspects is part of the job I signed up for. So it’s better to dwell on the positives…

Awesome Things About Volunteering With Meals on Wheels

Here are some of the cool things I’ve experienced donating my time …

Meeting good people! If you think I’m an annoyingly optimistic and happy person, you should see some of the other nerds I volunteer with! These people are the most generous, thoughtful and joyful people I’ve ever met. :) Interesting people from all walks of life.

It gives you perspective. Think you have a hard life? You should see some of your senior neighbors’ situations. Every volunteer shift is a reminder of how blessed I am in life.

Visiting new parts of town. Driving around Santa Monica and Venice is really interesting… While out and about I always notice new stores, paintings on walls, and cool start-ups all mixed with the Southern Californian beach culture. Exploring your own community is fun!

You get to see the direct benefit. When you get involved in charity personally and see the look on people’s faces when they receive help, you feel immediate accomplishment.

Personal growth and learning new skills. Most of life’s coolest personal growth experiences are found outside of your comfort zone. Volunteering continues to change who I am.

**My favorite benefit** Collecting fun and weird stories to share! There’s always something to laugh at and funny memories to be made along the way.

Personal Highlights From Volunteering

It’s important to have fun while you volunteer. These are a few stories from my travels as a Wheels volunteer…

Once I delivered to a woman who answered the door without any pants on. She was probably 90 years old. Instead of acting shy or apologizing, she just smiled and shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “I don’t really feel like wearing pants today.” 🤷🏻‍♀️

On the flip side, one Wheels client dresses up in a three-piece suit every day, even though he never leaves his house. He wants to look his absolute best for the 1-2 minutes when I come to his front door. It’s the highlight of his day.

I was delivering to an older lady once, and she asked me what type of food was inside. I looked at the box and read her the menu. Next she asked if I could read out all the ingredients of the food. I had a few minutes to spare, so I read her all the ingredients. Next, she asked if I could read them all out again. So I did, a little slower this time. Then, she asked if I could read them out a third time!… At that point, she said she just wanted someone to talk to. Guess she liked my Australian accent.

A few months ago I was on my meal delivery route and the Macarena song came on the radio. I hadn’t heard the Macarena in years, so I turned the volume up. I started bobbing my head and moving my hands. One thing lead to another, and I was doing the full Macarena dance in my car. At that moment, I looked to my left and saw some kids in the car next to me were filming me on their cellphones and laughing… I’m probably on YouTube somewhere. 🤦‍♂️

I met one woman last year who was 101 years old! No kidding, she was the oldest person I’ve ever met. Still walking around, and her mind still sharp as a tack. She asked me questions about my life, and I asked about hers. She reckons the secret to happiness in life is having kids. 😬

And there’s a bunch more stories I’ve shared on my personal site over the years if you want to check them out here.

Giving Time vs. Money

Growing up I always found it was easier to give money vs. volunteer my time. It’s probably because I usually felt that I had an excess of money but never had enough time in life.

Then a few years ago my situation reversed. When I quit my full-time job, I suddenly had an abundance of time and became much more stringent with money. 

It may reverse again in the future. Or maybe I can give both?

In the end, any giving is good giving. There’s no right or wrong way to be generous. Do what you can, and have fun along the way.

Have a great weekend!

– Joel

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  1. The Millennial Money Woman April 16, 2021 at 7:07 AM

    Happy Friday Joel!

    I loved reading this – and I think you’re absolutely right, volunteering can be awesome. Although you can give either your time, treasure or talent, like you, I try to give my time to organizations and charities. The people connection is the best thing there is.

    One of the organizations I volunteered for focused on educating young, underprivileged girls specifically in STEM and finance areas. It was the best experience I’ve had.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Joel April 16, 2021 at 4:42 PM

      That’s awesome! I was wondering if there were any organizations dedicated to personal finance education in schools. Such a great thing that is really needed!

  2. Katie April 16, 2021 at 8:51 AM

    Wow, you picked a really big commitment – good for you! I know my area has a local organization on FB that gets relief drivers over the holidays to give you regulars a break, which is pretty cool…but I don’t think I could handle the sad side of what you all do. Not weekly, anyway. As it is, my roommate (mom) loves reading the MoW menu from the Sunday newspaper and deciding if it’s a good week to be a senior, lol.

    We moved to a new state just before everything shut down last year, and I have been trying to find my volunteer niche. Yesterday I dropped an email to an animal shelter about stopping by to walk dogs – I need them to exercise me! There’s also a nonprofit that specializes in financial education and assistance for those living just above the poverty line, and they put out a call for anyone with expertise in a relevant area to teach it…I’m working on that.

    1. Joel April 16, 2021 at 4:44 PM

      Great to hear Katie! The only reason I chose MOW was because a flyer dropped in my lap one day. Right place right time kind of thing. I’ve been thinking about doing something with animals, but like you, I think it might be too sad for me to handle.
      Good luck finding a place in your new town! And thank you for what you do!

  3. Carolyn April 16, 2021 at 10:21 AM

    Last November, I decided to volunteer at an animal rescue shelter. There was nothing to do with everything shut down and my kids are grown and out of the house so it made sense. Every Sunday since then, I get up at 6:00am, drive 30 minutes away to the shelter, and spend 3 hours cleaning up to 8 dog kennels, and walking several dogs. On the upside, the four of us on the shift have the cleaning routine down, the dogs are in a safe and clean place and will end up in good homes, there are almost always cute puppies, and it’s (mostly) fun to hang out with the dogs. On the downside, it’s tiring, it can be sad to see how some of the dogs were treated before they came to our shelter, and there is a lot of poop to pick up (especially when there are puppies).

    Bottom line, I highly recommend finding a volunteer gig if you have the time. You don’t have to volunteer every week. Some people only volunteer once a month. I know at our shelter, any amount of time that people can help out is appreciated.

    1. Joel April 16, 2021 at 4:47 PM

      You’re amazing Carolyn, and you said the perfect thing… ANY amount of time is much appreciated. Giving just $1 a month makes a difference, and giving just 1 hour a month makes a difference.

      Thank you for what you do. And glad to hear you put up with the downsides and focus on the good! Have a great weekend!

  4. FreshLifeAdvice April 16, 2021 at 11:53 AM

    Thank you for your volunteer time Joel! I know others may not always say it, but they are thankful as well! I appreciate you being transparent and telling us about the realistic crummy parts of volunteering – you keep it real! But in the end, it’s always worth it! I love the volunteer stories you share with your 5am emails!

    1. Joel April 16, 2021 at 4:49 PM

      Thanks FLA. My favorite part is collecting stories! I just got home from volunteering today, and got a funny little story to tell in the next round. Fun stuff! Have a great Friday and weekend!

  5. Impersonal Finances April 16, 2021 at 2:15 PM

    The headline says it so perfectly! There are few things as rewarding, but it can still totally suuuuuck. I did a little volunteering during the worst of the pandemic and it just felt good to feel useful. Meals on Wheels sounds like a pretty good way to go about it and really feel like part of the community. And of course, collect some awesome stories! Man I hope I make it to my 90s. Awesome post–inspires me to get off my ass and look at some opportunities around me. My side hustle nature rejects any activity in which I’m not making money, but the trade off can be worth it for sure. Except for when it isn’t haha.

    1. Joel April 16, 2021 at 4:55 PM

      I totally know what you mean! I have a hustle nature too, and it’s difficult to reverse that thinking and sign up for activities that yield zero profits!

      But what’s helped is changing my life goals. My goal in life is not more money anymore – it’s trying to help others. Sounds cliche, but ever since I started giving stuff away, it’s coming back to me tenfold.

  6. J April 16, 2021 at 2:35 PM

    I’ve been enjoying the volunteer stories you have on your personal blog since reading this article. I will admit that someone trying to make me smile would probably have me throwing (soft) things at them after a while, but I have to know….did you ever end up gifting this lady flowers and chocolate?

    – One of my clients is a pretty grumpy lady. I’ve never seen her smile. So every week when I visit, I try and cheer her up. Last week I had a few jokes to tell her (I thought they were hilarious), but I still couldn’t get her to crack! We’ll see what happens this coming Friday… It’s Valentines Day and I’m thinking of bringing along 12 roses and some chocolates. I will get a smile out of her if it’s the last thing I do!

    1. J April 16, 2021 at 2:39 PM

      “One old man dresses up in a 3-piece suit every day, even though he never leaves his house. He wants to look his absolute best for the 20-30 seconds when I come to his front door. It’s the highlight of his day.”

      I want to hug this man.

      1. Joel April 16, 2021 at 5:05 PM

        hahaha yes. Actually there are a lot of well dressed old people. Just because they stay indoors all day, doesn’t mean they don’t dress up nicely for the day. :)

    2. Joel April 16, 2021 at 5:02 PM

      hahahah! That was over a year ago, and no, sadly I chickened out and never got her flowers. I really should have, even if she threw them in my face. This year and last year MOW gave us all valentines day cards to give the clients. Can’t remember what they were last year, but this year they were all made by school kids in the area. All the clients get a nice chuckle and smile when they got the cards. It was really fun to be a part of.

  7. Jennifer Jensen April 16, 2021 at 3:19 PM

    So interesting to read your article. I volunteer for Meals on Wheels in Alabama and it is much the same all the way across the country. I do have a really efficient Meals on Wheels organization that I volunteer for but they have a few quirks as well just because they are also understaffed. I love working with them. I started during COVID when I was furloughed and I am so very blessed each week.

    I also began driving all over Birmingham. Living an hour away, I have enjoyed learning the different vibes of each area. I do have my favorites and I actually met one Meals on Wheels recipient who used to volunteer with Meals on Wheels. We have developed the kind of relationship that meant when I didn’t deliver to her I still visited. She is deaf and blind and living alone. Wow!

    I remember almost every senior I delivered to and, looking at Google maps, I am able to see what a wide area and number of seniors I have met. Recently, however, when I started back to work I delivered to an apartment complex that has 240 residents. The volunteer services coordinator liked me so much she requested I keep the route so I have. I have enjoyed getting to know my people as I call them. One of them said he wanted to kidnap me and one kept yelling at me about how he needed more meals and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t do anything about that. I won over the second man when I waited 2 hours for him to get back from a doctor’s appointment. I am so glad we ended things on a good note because he died two weeks ago.

    You didn’t mention that part. Three of the seniors I know have died. That is tough.

    I have one lady that is so incredibly upbeat that she is always telling everyone how wonderful they are. Then there is the lady who hasn’t left the floor of the apartment she lives on since COVID began and she only leaves her apartment to dump the trash. I can’t even imagine…

    A Vietnam veteran has kept every card, gift bag, and little trinket I have given him. One gentleman recited most of the Old Testament to me up to Moses. Then I had to tell him it was time to leave. I love them all! Yes, there are always so many stories. I will have to read your stories.

    My husband sent me this link because I tell him all my stories and got him interested in volunteering. We deliver blood together. We’re blood buddies.

    1. Joel April 16, 2021 at 5:14 PM

      Hey Jen, love all your stories! Except for the death part, I’m sorry to hear that. But it’s the way it goes. So far, I only know of 1 client of mine that died. I showed up one day and his grandson answered the door. It put a small damper on my day, but honestly it got me thinking more about how to live my own life to the fullest, vs. focussing on the death part.

      Thankfully i have no more apartment complexes in my current route. I like having the same route for quicker shifts and visiting the same people. But, I definitely have less random stories to tell. :)

      Have a great weekend Jen. And THANK YOU for what you do.

  8. Chris April 17, 2021 at 1:14 PM

    “Forced” volunteering (LOL) by my Dad as a teenager led my sister and I to our careers. We were candystripers at a hospital. We got to do all sorts of things, more than at other hospitals I think. Anyway, I liked the office work as a candystriper and my sister liked the medical side. She’s been a registered nurse for about 20 years. I did medical transcription and medical office work for about 20 years.

    1. Joel April 19, 2021 at 1:02 PM

      Amazing Chris, thanks for sharing. And thank you for your work! It’s great when parents “force” their kids to volunteer – it teaches so much! :)

  9. Success Triangles April 17, 2021 at 7:34 PM

    Joel, I feel you with the good and bad of volunteering. I was PTA president for two years and although it was mostly a thankless job, there were some pretty cool moments – like the time when we raised $25k for a new digital sign out front of the school. It kind of made up for all the hassles involved dealing with Karens and other crazy parents ;-)

    1. Joel April 19, 2021 at 1:04 PM

      Hahaha! I’m imagining a room full of Karens. Must have been very tough. But thank you for doing that and putting in the time. Glad you saw a lot of the good side!

      1. Success Triangles May 2, 2021 at 12:14 PM

        Yep – Karens galore! I didn’t even want to join the PTA Board but my wife made me when they were looking for a treasurer (I’m a CPA and great with numbers). The next year the President moved on to middle school and suddenly I became President. I still don’t know how that happened. Haha!

  10. Steveark April 18, 2021 at 12:07 PM

    I volunteer, but at the governance level. Because I had experience at running a large company I have served on the board of two large nonprofits for years. I’m board chair currently and while it feels more like my old job than it does delivering meals (which I’ve also done) it is work that requires specialized skills. We are handling tens of millions of donated money and trying to make sure it is wisely spent in the community. We hire and fire the head of the organizations and are responsible to make sure everything done in the organization is fair, legal and mission focused. There are a lot of ways to serve, generally boards are looking for legal, tax, accounting, HR and senior management experience since they cannot afford to hire experts in all of those areas and they know we will work for free because we believe in what they are doing. There is a lot of inefficiency and lack of motivation in the nonprofit world, but there are also true heroes that see the work as more than a paycheck but as a calling. They more than make up for the meh parts.

    1. Joel April 19, 2021 at 1:09 PM

      Nice to hear, Steve. I’m sure you have a ton of experience to offer boards and great private sector management skills from your past workplace to bring over to the non-profit side. Must be frustrating at times, but glad you see the greater good.

      I volunteered on 2 boards in Los Angeles for emergency planning and business preparedness. This was back in my disaster management days. It was definitely thankless, but I made life-long connections and friends. I hope to do it again one day. I was the outreach/membership director, which was in line with my sales skills and background :)

  11. NZ Muse April 19, 2021 at 12:11 AM

    Volunteering is sometihng I’d love ot do more hands on when I have more time (soup kitchen, new migrants, animal shelter… that kind of thing). I’ve done youth mentoring, digital/social/grant writing for a nonprofit, and am on a local nonprofit board.

    1. Joel April 19, 2021 at 1:12 PM

      So cool to hear! Working with the youth is something I’d like to try. If my wife and I end up adopting, I’m sure I’ll be exposed to a bunch more youth programs where I can help out :)

      Thanks for what you do! Have a great week!

  12. GreenDollarBillsGirl April 28, 2021 at 4:44 PM

    This is so true! I love the idea of volunteering – have done a few days here and there, and I had great fun. Honestly, the reason I don’t do it as much as I should?

    1 – leading a busy life, I find I need 9 days a week and 28 hours a day sometimes to fit in my usual routine, never mind adding more to it!

    2 – It really can be inconvenient, which – honestly – doesn’t encourage you to rush back.

    3 – Some of the ‘long term’ volunteers can be decidedly… Set in their ways – which can make you feel awkward at best, and downright frustrated at worst!

    But when you have a good day, or see the gratitude in someone’s eyes – it is so worth it!