Everyone who does volunteer work has a story about what motivates them. Mine goes back to a warm autumn morning in 1963. I was 11 years old and sitting with my friends in our church’s library when a bomb exploded three rooms away at 10:32 AM.
The day was September 15, and the place was the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four little girls were killed. The deadly explosion became a turning point in the US civil rights movement, and in my own young life.
In the nearly 60 years since then, volunteering has been my way of remembering the four girls, all friends of mine, and encouraging others to share their time in small ways that have big impact.
Inspiration for a lifetime
It wasn’t easy to live in Birmingham as an African American. When my brother and I watched the news on TV, the only people who looked like us were in handcuffs. When we went shopping, we weren’t allowed to try on clothes or shoes in the stores. Instead, my mom would trace our feet on paper, and hand it to a salesperson to determine what size shoe we needed.
Black folks were relegated to the balcony of segregated movie theaters. The one time my brother and I convinced our dad to take us to a first-run movie, we had to enter through an alley door and walk up a dirty, unkempt stairway to sit in even dirtier seats in the Blacks-only balcony. I could see the look of humiliation on my dad's face. It’s a powerful memory that I was honored to have President George Bush share in 2004 as he celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
On the day of the bombing, my family received word around 5:00 PM that the four girls had died instantly. We’d known them since we were babies. My grandmother comforted my brother and me by saying we’d been spared for a reason, that part of our lives going forward would be to carry on for our four friends.
Three days later at the funeral for three of the girls, I joined the overflow crowd outside the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church and listened over the loudspeaker to Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy. I’d seen him on TV and on magazine covers. I watched the pallbearers bring out three coffins, with Dr. King following behind them. Every time I looked at him, I felt as though he was looking directly at me. That moment of connection with Dr. King, combined with my grandmother’s advice, motivated me for a lifetime of giving back.
Changing lives by opening doors
I started mentoring with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBS) in 1974 right out of college, shortly after I went to work for McDonnell Douglas in the NASA Space Shuttle Program. I was 21, and it quickly became apparent that my “little brother’s” time with me was his chance to do things he might not otherwise get to do. We went fishing. I took him to restaurants, museums and cultural events and taught him to tie a bow tie. I attended his school activities, and we visited local college campuses. We rooted for the then Houston Oilers from front-row seats. He was in my wedding.
I continued to volunteer with BBBS after relocating to Dallas for a job opportunity. Many of the kids BBBS serves in Dallas see the city’s beautiful skyline and never get to enter one of the skyscrapers. I wanted my little brother to see what it looked like to sit in an office on the 32nd floor of one of those buildings, so I worked out a plan to make it happen.
Kids have no idea what they can do until someone shows them.
Eventually, volunteering took on an even larger role for me. In 1989, I was honored to be named the National Big Brother of the Year. In 1991, I pitched the national committee of my college fraternity on partnering with BBBS. It kicked off a longstanding partnership between the two organizations and set me on a path to expand the partnership network by reaching out to other fraternities. Since then, I’ve served on a national task force to promote volunteering and advocacy, and in 1990, I spoke at the White House.
How businesses can help employees give back
I’ve seen firsthand the difference individuals can make. But together, businesses and employees can make an even greater impact. Here’s how businesses can support the workforce in making volunteer work a significant part of their lives:
- Give employees flexibility in choosing where they volunteer. Sharing our time is a personal choice. Let employees contribute to the programs that feel most meaningful to them. It may be putting a smile on kids’ faces. Or helping out the elderly. Or teaching at a prison. That personal connection to purpose is critical to engagement.
- Allow time off for community-based volunteering and mentoring. Paid time off for volunteering is one of the few employee benefits that has increased in recent years. For one thing, establishing volunteer time-off policies positively impacts employees’ health and well-being. For another, by increasing the time employees have to volunteer, it reinforces the all-important connection between their job and doing good for the community. You might just be nurturing future college students—and future employees.
- Recognize the business benefits. Surveys indicate that attrition is lower among employees who volunteer. For example, employees who volunteer through Cognizant Outreach have an 11% lower attrition rate. What’s more, because volunteering gives us a good feeling, it has a positive impact on team culture.
Helping people realize the impact they can make is my way of remembering my four friends who never had that opportunity. Through volunteering, I fulfilled my grandmother’s wishes and responded to that powerful moment with Dr. King.
Perhaps even more important, I get to nurture and give back to humanity.
If you are interested in volunteering to become a Big Brother or Big Sister go to www.bbbs.org.