From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back


There’s a story in the original 1993 Chicken Soup for the Soul that everyone seems to remember. A tourist walking along a beach in Mexico sees a man bending down every so often to pick up a stranded starfish and throw it back into the sea. The tourist asks the man why he is bothering. He can’t possibly save the thousands of starfish that have washed up on shore. How does he expect to make a difference given the immensity of the problem? The do-gooder bends down, picks up another starfish and tosses it into the water, saying, “Made a difference to that one.”

That story may be apocryphal but it remains one of my favorites. It’s a perfect way to start this collection of 101 stories from people who volunteer and give back, making a difference one person at a time. In fact, Carrie Morgridge, who wrote the foreword for this book and also helped us gather stories, cited yet another version of that same starfish story at the beginning of her recent bestseller, Every Gift Matters.

The subtitle of Carrie’s book is “How Your Passion Can Change The World,” and this book is filled with just that — passion. Every story is about people who are passionate about their volunteer work and their charitable giving, passionate about the new purpose they have found in their lives, and passionate about what volunteering has done for them. As you read the stories, you’ll also find that these writers feel that the biggest beneficiaries of their altruistic endeavors are themselves!

That’s why we start this volume with a chapter called “Who’s Helping Whom?” You’ll read about Ann Clark Van Hine, a 9/11 widow who finds healing and camaraderie in leading tours of the World Trade Center site and the 9/11 Tribute Center. Her volunteer work has led to many blessings for her, including two trips to Japan to share her story with survivors of the earthquake and tsunami there. Ann concludes her story by saying, “As I help others, my healing continues.”

In Chapter 1, you’ll also meet Toni Somers, who started playing guitar and leading sing-alongs at an assisted living facility twenty years ago because she needed something to do while visiting her sister there. Now, at eighty years old, Toni continues to volunteer at the facility, long after her sister’s passing, because the sing-alongs have become part of her own social system and the residents have become her extended family.

Speaking of family, we read numerous stories about families volunteering together. It’s a great way to create shared memories, bring teenagers out of their shells, and instill respect, compassion, and tolerance in kids starting at a young age. In Chapter 2, “A Family Affair,” you’ll meet Sumer Sorensen-Bain, whose young son Kylan set out to raise money for a birthday gift for his Ugandan pen pal, and ended up starting a youth network called the Difference Maker Movement. These kids and their parents are working together to make things happen all over the world.

Volunteering is a wonderful way for parents to connect with their children, particularly during those teenage years. You’ll read about how Cathi LaMarche and her daughter bonded as they worked in a food pantry, and how her daughter, never a fan of getting up early, eagerly returned to do a morning shift after she learned about the extent of the hunger problem in their community.

It’s not just our kids who learn valuable lessons from volunteering. We share some great ones in Chapter 3, which is called “Lessons Learned.” I loved Nicole Webster’s story about how tutoring a little boy for a whole school year made her realize that she had been ignoring the cute little boy in her own home — her brother. Nicole’s volunteer work opened her eyes to the siblings she had been too “grown-up” to notice — and now she is best friends with her sister and brother.

You can’t volunteer without learning how lucky you really are, and that’s what Sharon Struth explains in her story about renovating a trailer home in Appalachia. When the woman living there complimented Sharon on her skin and her appearance, she realized how blessed she was, living a normal middle-class lifestyle, to have ready access to skin care products and regular haircuts, things that most of us take for granted.

Speaking of being grateful for what we have, that is really the basis for Chapter 4, “The Spirit of Christmas.” I must warn you that we normally keep the magic alive for young readers in our books, but many of the stories in this chapter describe how our writers give Santa a little assist when it comes to distributing toys to all the good boys and girls out there.

Have you ever wondered where all the toys go after you donate them to Toys for Tots? Carrie Morgridge tells us how it works and also explains something I never knew — many of those “tots” are actually teenagers, and Toys for Tots would very much appreciate more donations of items for those older kids. Linda Lohman tells us about another way to assist Santa, a program called Christmas Promise, which has a team of volunteers dressed as Santa drop off backpacks filled with school supplies and stockings filled with personal care items for whole families, from babies to grandparents.

Some of the most giving people are the ones who went through hard times themselves. We share their stories in Chapter 5 — “Giving Back.” And, not surprisingly, the dearth of personal care items for those in need is expressed again in Janice VanHorne-Lane’s story about how she went from food-bank volunteer to food-bank client after her family fell on hard times. It was only when she was on the receiving end of the food bank’s help, and receiving government assistance too, that she realized there was no way for her family to get soap, detergent, and personal hygiene items. When she got back on her feet again, Janice returned to volunteering at the food pantry and convinced them to start collecting soap, razors, detergent, facial tissues, and other non-food necessities. She says, “When I handed an elderly lady her bag she saw the bar of soap and the roll of toilet paper and she gasped, grabbed my hand, and cried, ‘Thank you! Oh, thank you!’ It was as if I had handed her a million dollars.”

Thinking outside the box can lead to some great results, as Amanda Claire Yancey describes in her story. As a girl, Amanda used to see a woman picking up litter, carrying one of those trash claws and wearing a reflective vest. Amanda thought the woman was a bit crazy, but lo and behold, as a college student, she finds herself constantly picking up litter, to the point where her friends bought her a trash claw of her own. Amanda tells us that one day at the bus stop she started picking up litter. She was pleasantly surprised when all the strangers waiting for the bus with her starting picking up the litter, too.

There’s nothing more heartwarming than when strangers spontaneously come together to help out, like a flash mob of giving! And that giving creates camaraderie and a sense of community. Chapter 6 is called “No Strangers Here” because it is filled with stories about these “instant communities.” Take James Gemmell’s story about how he and his paper-mill worker buddies set out to help farmers save their livestock by getting generators up and running during the ice storm crisis of 1998. James says, “I have to say that I have never worked so hard in my life. Certainly I have never been so cold, so dirty, and yet so happy…. I have an indelible memory of a big, gruff-looking farmer who, lost for words, took me in his arms and hugged me tightly when we managed to put his generator back into service. To him it meant the difference between life and death for his animals.”

You can make a huge difference from the comfort of your own home, too. Alicia Rosen tells us about her mom, who devoted every evening, when she could have been relaxing, to calling five elderly people and chatting with them about their days. For many of those senior citizens, it was their only human contact all day.

A different kind of calling is covered in Chapter 7, “A Calling.” Sometimes you just have to do something — you don’t know why, but the impulse is there and you need to follow through. That’s what happened to Jeremy Russell after a terrible auto accident that left him with a prosthetic leg and a traumatic brain injury. He discovered a talent for carving rock into amazing sculptures and is now working on a massive carving of a Bald Eagle inside a mountain in Colorado. The Cost of Freedom Eagle will have a 50-foot wingspan, and Jeremy has not only raised funds for carving it in honor of U.S. troops, but also has been able to help some local high school students with arts college scholarships.

Leslie Calderoni felt a calling, too, when she heard about two kids in Atlanta whose only Christmas wish was a new kidney for their grandmother. Even though Leslie lived in California, and this woman was a complete stranger, she picked up the phone and volunteered. Leslie ended up donating a kidney in a paired donation program. Her kidney went to someone in New Jersey while a kidney from someone else went to the grandmother in Atlanta.

Helping people deal with life and death situations seems to bring out the best in our writers, and many of them talked about helping strangers with their end-of-life needs. In Chapter 8, called “With My Own Hands,” we meet Christine Cosse Gray, who provides massage and acupuncture services to hospice patients, “people who are near the end of their lives and don’t get touched much anymore except for medical procedures.” We have carpenters, seamstresses, church cleaners, knitters, musicians, and more in this chapter, people who use their talents to create joy for others. Even home gardeners, like John Farnam, who describes how he and his partner managed to grow 1,001 pounds of fresh vegetables in their personal garden to give away to twenty-four local families in Denver that needed food assistance.

Chapter 9 is about “Filling a Need,” something our writers do as soon as they see an opportunity. John Farnam’s partner Paul Heitzenrater describes how strongly he was affected one day when he saw a homeless teenager shivering on the street. Paul had just cleaned out his parents’ house and happened to have a red wool blanket in his trunk. He stopped the car, jumped out, and gave the boy the blanket. And with that gesture the Red Blanket Project, which has provided hundreds of blankets and scarves to the needy in the Denver area, was born.

Filling a need can be as simple as weeding a cemetery plot on your daily walk, as Stuart Perkins does. He doesn’t think it’s a big deal, as he is walking through the cemetery anyway, but he does so much weeding in the cemetery on a regular basis that the family members who visit the graves always confuse him for staff. Stuart is just doing what his grandmother told him when she said, “If you see a need, fill it, and don’t worry about who gets the credit.”

In our last chapter, “Every Living Thing,” we meet people who see a need and fill it, and get their appreciation in the form of slobbery kisses. At Chicken Soup for the Soul, we are big proponents of adopting dogs and cats from shelters, and we count numerous rescues among our own pets. So I was pleased to include a few stories about rescues in this book, including a wonderful one by Lisa Fowler about how volunteering at her local Humane Society shelter changed her life… and that of an adorable puppy named Hazel who now lives with her. B.J. Taylor tells us another animal story in the same chapter — she volunteers at a stable where she helps physically and mentally disabled kids and adults strengthen their bodies and their self-confidence through a therapeutic riding program. B.J. got over her own fear of horses by working at the stable… because after all, every one of these volunteering stories ends up with the writer talking about how he or she benefited too, right?

You may have received this book as a gift for volunteering. We know our volunteering books are often used to show appreciation. Or you may have picked up this book because you are looking for some ideas. You will undoubtedly be inspired to redouble your efforts wherever you are volunteering or to start up a new volunteering or charitable activity. I know that I was envious as I read the stories that were submitted for this book and edited the manuscript. I would love to pick up some more volunteer work, but right now, between my current volunteer commitment to my community and my work as author, editor-in-chief and publisher of Chicken Soup for the Soul, there just isn’t any more time. I’m writing this introduction at 11 p.m. on a Sunday and I’ve been working all weekend!

But, like volunteering, this is work that I love. We work very hard at Chicken Soup for the Soul making these books and all of our other products, and while it’s a business, it is also part of a much larger charitable effort. Chicken Soup for the Soul is a socially conscious company dedicated to improving the world around us. We give back a portion of all our revenues to causes ranging from animal adoption in the United States to fighting poverty in less developed parts of the world. All of our efforts support our mission to share happiness, inspiration, and wellness through everything we do, and that means putting a portion of our revenues to work doing good. Here are a few of the ways that we help:

Humpty Dumpty Institute: A portion of all Chicken Soup for the Soul sales goes to literacy, hunger and animal welfare programs that we work on with our charitable partner, the Humpty Dumpty Institute.

Pet Adoption Programs: We also donate Chicken Soup for the Soul pet food to rescue shelters and to new pet owners to encourage adoptions.

Giving Back with Books: The royalties from certain of our books go to specific charitable organizations, including the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Humane Association, the Kennedy Krieger Institute, A World Fit For Kids, the Bob Woodruff Foundation, and Cancer Schmancer. The royalties from this book will go to The Morgridge Family Foundation, which makes investments that transform communities through education, conservation, the arts, and health and wellness.

Breakfast at School: A portion of sales from Chicken Soup for the Soul foods supports a Humpty Dumpty Institute program that provides kids a free breakfast at school every day.

We thank you for volunteering and giving back. I hope you will enjoy reading these stories and find them as inspiring as I have. Happy reading!

~Amy Newmark

Follow us on Twitter: @amynewmark @chickensoupsoul

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