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Volunteering: The Inner Light

When it comes to giving back to your community, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

If you had ever told me that I would look forward to cleaning dog kennels on my days off, I would have thought you were one sick puppy. Yet that’s exactly what I rush off to do every Thursday afternoon when I volunteer at our local humane society. In fact, I consider my role as a bone-a fide animal groomer/walker/
pooper-picker-upper to be one of the most rewarding “jobs” of my career.

Clearly, I am in good company. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Bureau of Labor Statistics, volunteerism is on the rise. Approximately 63.8 million Americans performed some type of unpaid work in the period from September 2002 to September 2003 (U.S. DOL 2003).

The number of volunteers has risen steadily over the past decade, especially among young people and women. And their efforts are a valuable commodity: In 1998, the volunteer workforce represented the equivalent of more than 9 million full-time workers, whose combined efforts were worth a whopping $225 billion (Points of Light Foundation 2000)!

Are you interested in becoming a volunteer yourself but unsure how to get started? We examined trends and demographics in volunteerism to see where you might fit in. We also asked your fitness professional peers to tell us about their volunteer causes and how giving back has enriched their own lives in the process. Finally, we polled our own ranks to see what IDEA staffers are doing to make the world a better place.

Come Together

Although volunteers come in every size and color in the United States, certain trends are noteworthy. Women tend to volunteer their time more often than men,
regardless of age group or education level. In fact,
approximately 32.2% of women did volunteer work in the year that ended September 2003, compared to 25.1% of men (U.S. DOL 2003).

As a rule, people 35-44 years old are most likely to volunteer, followed closely by those 45-54. Among teenagers, the volunteer rate is increasing. Adults who are 65 and older devote the most time—a median of 88 hours per year—to volunteer activities (U.S. DOL 2003). Surprisingly, the rate of volunteerism is higher among those who are employed than those who do not hold a full- or part-time job.

Most people who volunteer their time are involved with one or two organizations. Older volunteers gravitate toward religious organizations, whereas parents with school-age children tend to volunteer for educational or youth-oriented causes, such as school projects and Little League.

Volunteering is also an emerging trend among fitness professionals. In last year’s IDEA Trendwatch report, 16 of the 20 survey participants polled said they donate personal training sessions or club memberships to charity to promote goodwill and give back to their communities (Lofshult 2003).

Across the Universe

Compassion, interest and perspective are some of the reasons that fitness professionals cite when asked why they volunteer their time.

“In keeping with IDEA’s goal to Inspire the World to Fitness®, my goal [in volunteering] is to create awareness and help individuals from all countries understand that fitness is necessary for a great quality of life,” says Lawrence Biscontini, 2004 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and group fitness manager of the Golden Door Spa in Puerto Rico.

In addition to volunteering his time to teach yoga to incarcerated youth twice a month, in 1998 Biscontini founded a nonprofit group called Fitness Group 2000 (FG2000), which provides free continuing education for fitness instructors in Third-World countries in South America and Eastern Europe. “It’s a really rewarding organization that provides cutting-edge programs for people who cannot afford to attend regular fitness conventions.”

Some fitness professionals are veterans when it comes to volunteering their time. “I’ve always believed in giving back to my community,” says Suzanne Nottingham, fitness director for the Double Eagle Resort and Creekside Spa in June Lake, California. “I think my first volunteer work was when I was in seventh grade and worked with kids with muscular dystrophy.” These days, Nottingham supports a number of causes. “From sick community members to youth sports, there are so many good causes,” she says, “and giving an hour or two, or more, of my week is really insignificant.”

Nottingham sees her volunteer work as an extension of her fitness career. “I live in a small town, so even if teaching fitness isn’t the main objective of my volunteer work, everyone here knows that’s what I do,” she says. “I am ultimately a fitness spokesperson and am happy to share information.”

Like many parents, Nottingham is involved in her children’s school activities. “I train cheerleaders and coach youth soccer. At the spa where I work, I also volunteer as a personal trainer for at-risk members who don’t have [the money] for training.”

Nottingham also enjoys volunteering with older adults. “To do this, I hang out in senior centers, which has its perks, like playing bingo!”

Ask Me Why

Like Nottingham, Justin Price believes that his volunteer work has paid dividends. “It is a way of increasing awareness of the types of services I provide,” he says. Price, a San Diego-based personal trainer and biomechanics specialist, has provided free sessions to charitable organizations and medical professionals in his neighborhood and also has “severely reduced” his rates for clients with Parkinson’s disease. “I have also offered my time and services in the form of gift certificates that I donate to charity fundraiser events like silent auctions.” Price was motivated to volunteer after several clients approached him about donating his time.

Nicki Anderson gravitated to volunteering after she became involved with her local chamber of commerce and school district in Naperville, Illinois. Her company, Reality Fitness Inc., regularly donates services to youth organizations, such as Brownie troops. “We teach them the value of a healthy body,” she says.

She is also part of a program called “Girls on the Run,” a national organization that teaches girls how to strength train, and another organization called “Meld Young Moms,” which promotes health and fitness for teenage mothers and their children. “I also volunteer my time going into the schools to talk to kids and their parents about the value of regular exercise and sound nutrition,” says Anderson.

Like many mothers, 1999 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year Mindy Mylrea was motivated to volunteer in her community when her children first attended school. “For the past 14 years, I have volunteered one day a week teaching children’s fitness in the Santa Cruz City School District,” she explains. “I try to make physical education and fitness fun by involving all the kids and making them all feel special by letting them show off their unique talents. It’s rewarding to know that you are making a difference in children’s lives.”

Can’t Buy Me Love

Lori Chaplin, owner of Sol Gyms in San Francisco and San Diego, became a volunteer through serendipity. “A situation finds you, and you feel compelled to help,” she says. “It’s not money driven or ego driven. It’s just something you must do.”

Chaplin, who donates personal training sessions to clients with disabilities who can’t afford to pay, got started when she was teaching adaptive physical education at City College in San Francisco. “A young woman with severe stroke symptoms came in using a wheelchair. I felt bad for her and told her that I would train her for free if she kept it a secret. It has been about 10 years now, and she’s never left. The most amazing thing is that she walked a marathon in Jamaica last year!”

While watching a client go from a wheelchair to a marathon is quite an accomplishment, Chaplin says she is most proud of the fact that this special client recently walked to the gym by herself. “I cried that day. She didn’t tell me she was going to do that. Her tenacity got her there. What a survivor!”

Fundraisers are another great way to help your community, says Amanda Vogel, vice president of FitCity for Women in Vancouver, British Columbia, which occasionally holds free group-taught fitness classes for local charities. “Volunteering my time and instructing skills for special fund-raiser classes is one way that I have been able to give back to my community,” she says. “I really like being able to share the experience with other fitness instructors as well. Group exercise instructors rarely get the chance to teach together and socialize in a class setting, so it’s always a lot of fun and a great way to build team spirit.”

Alex McMillan, co-owner and president of Northwest Personal Training & Fitness Education in Vancouver, Washington, considers fundraising an important business priority. “We’ve made it a regular part of our company’s yearly agenda to dedicate specific dates and times to donate to community events and services,” he says. “We volunteer at community youth shelters and assisted living [centers] and help out at charity auctions that raise money for low-income populations and for organizations such
as the American Heart Association.”

Although McMillan says that volunteering provides the “satisfaction of being part of a greater purpose,” he also points to other, more practical rewards. “I have created many new client relationships from volunteering my time and services. Not only is volunteering time a good thing to do as a human being; it also establishes you as a leader in your community. This leads to exposure that you may not have expected, as well as recognition as a giving member of society.”

We Can Work It Out

Volunteering may inadvertently boost your business, but Anderson insists that it’s not all about the bottom line. “Sure, there is a definite perk as far as [personal] exposure, but there are so many other rewards,” she says. “As a business owner, you should be a role model for your staff, to show them it’s about what we are able to give to others. Volunteering adds to your credibility and shows [others] what you value.”

Anderson said one of her most rewarding experiences is holding an annual essay contest in which the winning author is awarded 12 weeks of free personal training sessions. “This year’s winner was a cancer survivor who lost 25 pounds, lowered her triglyceride level and blood pressure, and now feels that she has her life back. I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than being able to make such a difference. It’s an amazing feeling!”

When it comes to finding a volunteer cause to support, Mylrea encourages fitness professionals to “just do it!” “We owe it to our communities to give our gift. We were all given this amazing gift to be able to teach, and we need to reach out to the people who really need it.”

According to Nottingham, helping others lead a healthier life is more than worth the effort in the long run. “Know that you’ll never make cash,” she warns. “Instead, you will make friends. Step outside yourself for 1 hour a month, and it will feel like therapy for your spirit. Sometimes I feel elated, and other times I am sad because I know that my little, meager effort won’t really make that much of a difference. But I have faith that somewhere along the line, I will have influenced people to live longer.”

All Together Now

Many readers are aware that IDEA has held an early-morning charity workout to benefit the National AIDS Fund at the IDEA World Fitness Convention for the past 4 years; this year’s charity time block in San Diego raised more than $4,710 for the American Heart Association. In April, IDEA held its annual fundraiser at Fitness Fusion in Chicago to support Y-Me, a national breast cancer organization.

What many people don’t know is how tirelessly many individual IDEA staff members volunteer their time. Serving as role models for altruism, IDEA Chief Executive Officer Peter Davis and Executive Director Kathie Davis are involved in numerous volunteer projects, including a group called Responsibility, which supports and educates children who live in landfills in Mexico.

“Getting involved in your community and giving your time to causes you believe in are important,” says Kathie Davis. “[Volunteering is] a great way to meet people and to give back in ways that have true meaning to you.”

The Davises encourage their employees to pitch in by buying the children Christmas gifts, which are then packaged and delivered to Responsibility. The couple’s efforts have even helped the organization build a schoolhouse. Kathie Davis also serves as an advisor for a group that raises funds for San Diego State University’s School of Professional Studies and Fine Arts. And for 2 years she joined her teenage daughter Kelli in volunteering for the National Charity League, a mother-daughter organization that supports local charities. Peter Davis stays busy serving on the boards of several sports-oriented nonprofit associations.

Other IDEA staffers are equally involved in community organizations. Senior Director of Member Services Annina Torri works with a local nonprofit arts and music organization and participates in beach cleanup drives every other weekend. Senior Editor Joy Keller works with an organization called Volunteer San Diego, which allows people to choose a different volunteer activity each week; options include tutoring children in reading, serving as a “buddy” for physically and mentally challenged adults; and assisting at a local cat shelter. “I enjoy volunteering because it expands my little world and reminds me that there are many ways we can enrich the quality of life for all,” says Keller.

Senior Vice President of Marketing and Membership Bernie Schroeder is an ice hockey coach who works with 12- ÔÇ¿to 16-year-old boys a few days each week. “We teach them how to be gracious when winning or losing games,” he says. “We also teach them about hydration and nutrition, how to add muscle mass and how to properly warm up before practice and games. It’s all about helping them grow up and become responsible young adults.”

Volunteer Coordinator Dana Rucci volunteers her time at her children’s schools. She has served as a room parent, as the team manager for a club basketball team and as a board member for an organization that promotes healthy lifestyle choices for high-school students. Last year, she started a walking group for mothers at her daughter’s elementary school. “We meet one morning a week and stretch, walk (usually for 90 minutes) and come back to do abs and our cooldown,” she says. “The rewards have been wonderful. I really feel that I have educated and motivated a few women who hadn’t exercised in years!”

Some IDEA employees have gone ÔÇ¿to great lengths to help other people. Receptionist Josy Martin is an accomplished pilot who has flown on volunteer search-and-rescue missions. “I once flew a dog team and a handler to search for a 3-year-old who was stranded in the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia,” Martin recounts. “Locating this child was my most touching and rewarding mission.”

Other IDEA staff members have logged time working with Habitat for Humanity and coaching convalescent children in aquatic fitness programs ÔÇ¿at local rehab hospitals.


Here are some more volunteering resources to check out:

Volunteer Organizations

  • Global Volunteer Network (www.volunteer.org.nz): Provides volunteer opportunities for international projects.
  • Idealist.org (www.idealist.org): Lists more than 40,000 ÔÇ¿nonprofit and community organizations in 165 countries.
  • U.S. Department of Human Service Programs (www.ciÔÇ¿.cambridge.ma.us): Offers an alphabetical listing of ÔÇ¿national volunteer organizations.
  • Volunteer Match (www.volunteermatch.org): Provides links ÔÇ¿to national organizations and nonprofit partners.
  • Volunteer Solutions (www.volunteersolutions.org): Connects individuals with volunteer opportunities in their local community.
  • Sports and Fitness Organizations

    • Fitness Group 2000, or FG2000 (www.findlawrence.com): ÔÇ¿A nonprofit organization started by Lawrence Biscontini that offers free training for fitness educators in Third-World countries.

    Sports and Therapeutic Recreation

    • Instruction/Developmental Education (S.T.R.I.D.E.) (www.stride.org): A nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to enriching the lives of individuals with disabilities through sports and recreational opportunities.
    • The Low Vision Gateway (www.lowvision.org): Lists sports and recreation volunteer organizations that work with ÔÇ¿vision-impaired individuals.

    Kids and Teens Organizations

    • Big Brothers Big Sisters (www.bbbsa.org): Lists volunteer opportunities for working with kids.
    • Bridge Over Troubled Waters (www.bridgeovertroubledÔÇ¿water.org): Provides volunteer services for runaway or homeless youth.
    • Stand Up for Kids (www.standupforkids.org): A national ÔÇ¿organization that works with homeless and street kids.
    • TakingITGlobal (www.takingitglobal.org): An online, free-membership site that encourages youth to make a global ÔÇ¿difference.

    Other Volunteer Groups

    • The Animal Rescue Site (www.theanimalrescuesite.com): Enables visitors to help an animal in a shelter or sanctuary by simply clicking a button.
    • Green Volunteers (www.greenvol.com): Lists nearly 500 ÔÇ¿environmental volunteer projects the world over.
    • Humane Animal Rescue Team (H.A.R.T.) ([email protected]): A volunteer organization dedicated to rescuing and placing abandoned senior dogs.
    • Save the Manatee® Club (www.savethemanatee.org): Adopt a manatee for a year for the cost of a typical birthday or holiday gift.

    Carry That Weight

    Want to get involved, but not sure how to get started? Here are some lessons from veteran volunteers:

    • Pursue Your Passions. “You might think that you are too busy to volunteer and don’t have the time or energy,” says IDEA Volunteer Coordinator Dana Rucci. ÔÇ¿“But if you combine your volunteering with your passion, the rewards are more than worth it. For me, [those passions] are my kids and fitness.”
    • Be Realistic About Your Time Commitment. Although some organizations require ÔÇ¿that their volunteers donate a specific number of hours a month, others are more flexible in letting you set your own hours. Some organizations will even encourage you to try several different volunteer activities before settling on the one you like best.
    • Choose an Organization That Fits Your Personal Style. “If you specialize in injury postrehab, volunteer at a sporting event,” advises Justin Price, a San Diego-based personal trainer and biomechanics specialist. “This is a great way to demonstrate your technical skills and knowledge.”
    • Check Your Newspaper for Volunteer Opportunities in Your Community. For example, every Thursday the San Diego Union-Tribune lists local organizations that are actively seeking volunteers. The organizations are listed by ÔÇ¿location and type of activity.
    • Start Small by Acting as a “Surrogate Volunteer” for Others. For instance, after failing each year to muster enthusiasm for a toy drive at a company I used to work for, I instead collected cash from my coworkers and then bought the gifts they didn’t have the time to buy.
    • If You Can’t Volunteer Regularly, Look Into Special Events Held Once or Twice a Year. “Lots of community-based fundraiser walks and runs need fitness instructors to warm up the crowd,” says Amanda Vogel, vice president of FitCity for Women in Vancouver, British Columbia. “It’s also a good way to attract new participants to your club or classes.”
    • Find a Niche That You Care About. That’s the advice of Nicki Anderson, owner of Reality Fitness Inc. in Naperville, Illinois. “It could be special-needs children or seniors or your favorite charity,” she suggests.
    • Make Kids’ Fitness Your Priority. “The schools need us,” urges Suzanne Nottingham, fitness director at the Double Eagle Resort and Creekside Spa in June Lake, California. “There is little or no funding for physical education classes. It may not be easy working with school authorities, but it’s worth the effort to help kids.”

    Fixing a Hole

    There are no limits to the types of ÔÇ¿activities and organizations that need volunteers. Here are just a few:

    Sports and Fitness. Hold a free fitness class and “charge” each participant two canned goods for a food bank. Host a holiday-themed event and ask members to donate cash to a chosen charity in exchange for admittance. Donate a year’s worth of weekly personal training sessions to a needy client. Make it an annual business goal to donate a set number of hours to a local charity. Organize and coach a team to compete in charity marathons.

    Seniors. Help prepare and deliver meals to older adults. Drive and accompany seniors to medical appointments or the grocery store. Hold free lectures in your club to promote healthy nutrition and exercise for older adults. Start a fitness class at your local retirement community.

    Children and Teens. Organize weekly cleanup drives at local beaches, rivers or parks. Mentor an at-risk teenager. Read aloud to young children at your local library. Start an exercise class for overweight kids at your local school. Coach a soccer, baseball or football team. Become a class parent, a Big Brother or Sister, or a Mentor Mom for pregnant teenage girls.

    Animals. Volunteer to exercise and groom animals at your local shelter. Organize a pet-supply drive at your club. Hold a “Feed an Animal in Need” car wash with your coworkers in your parking lot. Collect pet food from members, and deliver it to indigent ÔÇ¿or house-bound seniors with animals. Raise a canine companion or assistance dog. Sponsor a pet at your local humane society or adopt a marine ÔÇ¿animal (see “HELP!” on page 65).

    Internet. Check out opportunities on the Internet by using key words such as “elder care” or “sports and recreation.” Don’t have the time to volunteer right now? Become a “virtual volunteer,” which requires only that you “click for free” to make a donation. For example, I help an animal in need every day by simply logging onto the Animal Rescue Site (www.theÔÇ¿animalrescuesite.com).


Lofshult, D. 2003. The 2003 IDEA Trendwatch: Program trends. IDEA Health & Fitness Source, 21 (7), 70-4.
Points of Light Foundation. 2000. National Volunteer Week website press release: Volunteering trends and statistics.
unteerstats.html; retrieved May 7, 2004.
U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). 2003. Volunteering in the United States, 2003. www.bls.gov/news.release/ volun.nr0.htm; retrieved May 26, 2004.


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