Our empathy can sometimes be a source of pain. But, when harnessed in a good cause, it can transform lives — including our own.
I’m a regular volunteer at Agapé, our local therapeutic horseback riding center. I work with children and have served as a sidewalker for well over a year — sidewalkers walk alongside the riders, many of whom have a disability, to ensure they are safe and get the best experience possible.
One evening, I noticed one young woman — Ashley Girl, as I call her — was having some struggles. She is non-verbal and was extra “chirpy,” something she does when she’s agitated. I looked closely at her and exclaimed, “She doesn’t have the bandana around her neck!” (Ashley usually wears a bandana and it helps her soothe herself.)
Fortunately, I’ve worked with Ashley long enough to help her through these times, so I began to sing to her and rub her hands reassuringly. When the lesson was over, I mentioned the bandana situation to her father and he said, “Yep, I realized it was missing toward the end!” The other volunteers commented about how intuitive I am to Ashley’s needs.
As I drove home that evening, it all made sense to me. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I generally pick up on others’ emotions and feelings. I felt so happy knowing that being an HSP helps me be an effective volunteer — and realized it probably helps others, too.
Nonprofits (and Other Organizations) Need HSPs
According to Ohio University, volunteers often help keep the doors open and enable nonprofits to deliver vital programs and services. They lend their expertise on the board of directors, as well as to fundraising campaigns and special events, and often work in direct customer service roles. The 2019 Volunteering in America Report found that about 77.9 million people (30 percent) volunteered 5.8 billion hours, with an estimated value of $147 billion.
For nonprofit leaders, volunteers are the backbone of the organization — something that’s especially true at organizations with a small staff or a unique mission, or for those in small or rural communities. If you’re an HSP who’s not currently volunteering in your community in some way, I want to encourage you to consider the possibility. Here are just a few reasons why.
4 Reasons Why HSPs Make Such Great Volunteers
1. You can sense what others cannot.
Going back to my relationship with Ashley, aside from the example above, I’ve been able to soothe her in other situations, too. During one particularly stressful session last winter in the indoor arena, Ashley was extra chirpy. I studied her intently as I walked alongside her. Something — let’s say my HSP intuition — made me take her hand, and I discovered it was freezing. I rolled back my sleeve and let her grasp my wrist and forearm. She continued to hold my arm and warm up her hands — and calmed down considerably.
After just a few months of volunteering, I quickly learned how to tune in to Ashley and soothe her when necessary. She’s become less chirpy due to that, and some other factors, and I’m beyond thrilled for her.
My fellow HSPs, you can do the same when you volunteer. Maybe you’ll sense that an attendee isn’t having fun at an event and work to help them. Maybe you’ll notice a better way to implement a new process that can save the organization both time and money. Or, if you’re volunteering with animals, you can use your HSP Spidey sense to recognize when they need something, too (like food, a walk, or some good cuddling). No matter what, your superpower of sensitivity can often help charitable organizations rise to the next level.
2. Nonprofits need your giving and empathic heart.
Another big reason to volunteer as an HSP is because nonprofits need your warm, loving, empathic heart and tenderness. As we well know, the world today is often a cruel place. But we HSPs can counteract that by spreading our love through our words and actions. What better way to do that than in a volunteer role?
If you’re already volunteering, congratulations! As an HSP, you bring something special to the table. If you’re not volunteering yet, consider giving even an hour of your time each month. Both you — and your community — will feel the rewards. For example, you can be that listening ear for someone who needs one or the visitor that dog at the animal shelter needs. Since empathy is one of our strong suits as sensitive people, others can greatly benefit from it.
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3. It will help you get out of your comfort zone.
After reading what I’ve written so far, you may think I instantly got close to Ashley. I have to admit, I initially wondered if I could work with her. Sidewalkers for Ashley have to do what’s called a “thigh hold” — you’re holding your arm up high for an hour, resting it on the rider’s thigh to help stabilize them. This doesn’t sound hard, but after about 30 minutes, my arm and wrist sometimes become tingly. I’ve battled carpal tunnel syndrome in the past, so I became worried.
But I didn’t want to give up.
Thankfully, I now switch sides with the other sidewalker halfway through each lesson, which helps tremendously. Now I’m proud that I stuck it out and I’m able to serve in this role every Thursday evening. While Ashley isn’t the easiest rider to work with, I’ve grown to love her and can’t imagine not seeing her every week.
Point being, it’s certainly important for highly sensitive people to set boundaries and take care of ourselves due to the overstimulation we encounter. But I think it’s good to first step back when we encounter a challenge and see if there’s a way to overcome it and not stress ourselves. If we can find that solution and implement it, it can open us up to new experiences and relationships.
Sure, I could have given up on being a sidewalker — that would have been the easy way out. But I continued, figured out a solution (by getting another sidewalker to help out), and have grown tremendously in the process. Plus, as a result, this makes me feel more fulfilled — and for us HSPs, it’s important to have a sense of purpose. Speaking of which…
4. Volunteering is not only fulfilling, but also fun.
As an HSP, I get so much joy out of volunteering. I love kids and I love horses. Working with both every week, and sometimes at special events, makes me incredibly happy. The look of wonder on children’s faces when they accomplish something new — as well as their squeals of delight and bright smiles when they see their favorite horse — melts my heart.
I think the reason I experience this joy is that I’ve found the right volunteer opportunity for me, which is key for HSPs (or, truly, anyone!). While spending two-and-a-half hours each week in the barn is tiring, it’s a good, satisfying feeling. Most of the time, we keep the arena doors open and take a walk on the nearby trail, so I’m outdoors. The sights, sounds, and smells (yes, even the horse poop!) are nature at its best. And nature is one of an HSP’s favorite things!
As an HSP, It’s Important to Find the Volunteer Opportunity That Works Best for You
If I’ve made you consider volunteering in your community, I encourage you to do your research. Make sure you find the right organization and the amount of time to dedicate each week (or month) that is right for you. Volunteering shouldn’t be upsetting, frustrating, or exhausting — we HSPs experience enough overstimulation as it is!
Most of us are familiar with the saying “God loves a cheerful giver.” Make sure you’re doing what you enjoy, but that you don’t overdo it. And don’t be afraid to say “no” when you need to. Nonprofits will ask their best volunteers to expand their role, which makes sense. But if you’re not ready for that, it’s okay. You’re still doing your part to serve your community in your own unique way, using all your HSP strengths in the process.
HSPs, what would you add to the list? I’d love to hear in the comments below!
Want to help make the world a better place in another way? Check out my new book, Interviews By a Clueless White Woman, coming out through Warren Publishing this August.