I started my lifetime commitment to community service while I was in high school. My grandma was always willing to lend a hand to others, and the rest of my family seems to have the same trait—giving back. She beat into my head the importance of community service, and my first opportunity was with Mexican Fiesta. I didn’t necessarily go willingly.
My family had been volunteering for Milwaukee’s Fiesta for years, and the event needed someone trustworthy to be a money runner—the person responsible for collecting money from ticket sales and making sure it was deposited. Although I didn’t know everything that was involved, and very nervous of making mistakes, I accepted.
I must have done a good job, because I have been involved with Fiesta since 1998 and advanced to now being responsible for all revenue that comes into the festival. Volunteering taught me something more than school alone could have—how to be a leader.
Working as a volunteer was my first big responsibility. People were relying on me. I counted, and recounted the money to make sure everything was always accurate. I was 17 and didn’t want anyone to think I was stealing money if there was a discrepancy.
I started to build my leadership skills as the captain of my high school soccer team. There I learned how to motivate and lead people. These skills helped me a lot when I started volunteering for Fiesta. I continued to learn how to work with and manage a team.
Advantages for college applications
Volunteering will help you gain experiences and build characteristics for which colleges are looking. With everything else being equal, including GPA, volunteering can tip the scales in your favor among thousands of applicants.
One of my most valuable experiences was learning how to work effectively with volunteers and the public. I learned how different people think, react in various situations, and approach problems. I quickly learned how to negotiate and compromise while creating a volunteer schedule, and to appreciate what each person had to offer. I’ve also dealt with the pubic, including rude attendees. Learning to respond without also being rude is a valuable skill.
What do you do when a ticket didn’t scan or a discount wasn’t applied? I learned to think on my feet and come up with solutions, fast. I gathered all the information available and made the best decisions I could. Over the years, through mistakes, solutions, working with others, and taking on increasing responsibilities, my confidence grew, and my problem solving abilities increased.
Organization and planning
I was still in school, doing homework, playing soccer, hanging with friends, and now I was volunteering, too. Scheduling nearly 175 volunteers for more than 300 volunteer shifts over three days quickly taught me to plan ahead and to stay organized. Planning helped me stay on time for classes, meetings, deadlines, and all my other responsibilities.
By volunteering outside of school, I met a lot of people I probably never would have. Community service is a great opportunity to network, which you may not even realize you’re doing at the time.
I am committed to Mexican Fiesta and have been volunteering for years. Making a long-term commitment to a single organization demonstrates more commitment than volunteering for multiple organizations. It shows you’re able to stick with something, which is what colleges are looking for.
I learned that to be successful I had to work effectively on a team. And, although I developed many skills and characteristics through my volunteer activities, the focus of the team had to be on serving the community by producing the best Fiesta possible. Community service quickly teaches you that it’s not about you.
Learning from mistakes
I was terrified of making a mistake. And, of course, I did make mistakes. I learned from others, and from my own experiences, how to come up with solutions and to avoid the same mistakes in the future. Mistakes are inevitable, invaluable lessons.
Looking for opportunities
Volunteering is an opportunity to exercise your current skills and learn new ones. Look for opportunities that match your talents, interests, and passions.
Ask yourself, what organizations may I be able to help and how? Is there a career you’d like to pursue? Find an opportunity that allows you to learn more about that career and build necessary skills. Share with the organization the skills you bring, how you think you may be able to assist, and what skills you’re hoping to learn.
It’s never too early to start volunteering
I wish I had understood the importance of volunteering even earlier in my life. Now, I try to give back to the community as much as I can. So many people helped me, now it’s my turn to help others. I started the EmpowerMe Foundation, sit on a number of boards of directors, have coached soccer for local leagues, and helped plan business golf outings, among many other activities.
Community service can help you learn new skills, build character, and, it’s just the right thing to do. How are you going to serve?