The spirit of volunteerism

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Cristopher Valenzuela
  • 509th Operations Support Squadron first sergeant
My family recently took a vacation in Wisconsin. We finally settled in the Wild Rivers Country of the Northwoods in a little town called Florence. On our drive up U.S. 51 my wife and I noticed a lot of tall white pines on both sides of the road. It was unusual in the sense that the trees were perfectly aligned perhaps through divine intervention.

We were amazed at the random perfection to only later find out at the Florence County Wild Rivers Interpretive Center was planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps, also known as "Roosevelt's Tree Army" from 1933-1942. This contributed to the rebirth of the upper half of Wisconsin during wide-spread fires at the turn of the 19th century and to prevent against deforestation and soil erosion problems of the day. Remarkable, an all-volunteer corps planted over 265 million trees in Wisconsin working for as little as $30 a month.

I pondered this as I was enjoying the peace and serenity of the tall pines, maples and oaks, the birds singing and the occasional loon on the lake laughing. I was grateful that a man had the vision to get a group of people together to save the American land. Sixty-seven years after the last tree was planted it made an impression on me. Wow, isn't America great because of its volunteers?

From time to time, I tell people that I've been in the Air Force almost 40 years, the first 22 as a dependent. The one common theme I see no matter where I'm stationed is the spirit of volunteerism. I know wherever I go, there will be a group of individuals on that base doing things to make the base and surrounding community better. And I know that spirit exists at Whiteman despite the tough inspection schedule and all the clamoring in the world competing for our attention; we still find time to volunteer and it is imperative we continue.

We need to continue because volunteerism teaches us how to be involved in something greater than ourselves. By taking on something greater, we become less self-centered. It also helps us to give of our most precious commodity - time. We can also give money to a cause, but we miss out on the joy of serving. Money is only a vehicle, whereas time expended builds character and life experiences.

To begin with, we all have different backgrounds, upbringings and values, but no one on this base, I hope, was coerced at gun point to join the Air Force. This is the best all-volunteer force serving to defend the precious freedom we enjoy as Americans. Volunteering helps take the focus off of self and puts the focus on others.

I think of the many selfless volunteers at the Whiteman Thrift Shop and Airman's Attic who minister to the needs of young Air Force families, the different coaches and mentors who support the youth sports program and schools, and the Red Cross volunteers who help in the clinic and pharmacy. Oh how these volunteers contribute to the base morale, their contributions are immeasurable.

Secondly, volunteerism teaches us how to work with others. The Civilian Conservation Corps enabled young men 18-26 years old their first experience working with others. It taught some of them, for the first time, how to live in harmony with others, follow orders on the job and operate heavy equipment and to take care of their communal living quarters.

Sound familiar? We are so team focused. The day we joined the Air Force and through basic training, we have been taught to work as a team. Everything we do in our jobs involves teamwork whether it is weapons load-crews, security forces augmentees, or the food line in the dining facility, we operate in teams.

When we volunteer for projects around the base and communities, we partner with people we've never met before. We derive intangibles from being a part of a team such as others life experiences, leadership and convictions. It's okay to borrow other people's convictions until you come up with your own. I can honestly say without a lot of borrowed convictions, I wouldn't be in the Air Force today. My many volunteer opportunities as a dependent put me on the same team with Air Force personnel and during those times I didn't know I was being mentored and influenced. Much of what I do today is still borrowed.

There are professional organizations on base and booster clubs that help extend the team concept. These organizations are all-volunteer positions set up to give you a team atmosphere environment. It helps you learn how to bring ideas together, network, conduct meetings effectively and collect feedback on your processes. It is satisfying when you can come together with your peer-group to work on projects throughout the base and civilian community and see the final product; the smiles on children's faces, beautiful city landscapes and saved lives because someone took the time to volunteer as a designated driver with AADD.

Lastly, volunteerism enables us to pass America's legacy to the next generation. America is great because of its volunteers. We as a nation, however, are one generation removed from ceasing to be great. Since the 1960's, America has moved towards self-centeredness instead of others-focused. It is important we model the volunteer-behavior to our family members, new Airmen and those in the community.

How do we do this? As NCOs and leadership, we teach our Airmen through example. Our actions speak louder than words. If we are critical when volunteer opportunities come up, our Airmen will also be negative and critical.

Young Airmen, you might be saying, "Wow! This is overwhelming; I don't even know where to start." Find volunteer opportunities that match your talents. If you like to work on handyman projects, consider partnering with Habitats for Humanity and build someone a house. If you are scholarly, go to the schools and tutor a struggling student. We are all wired differently, and we all have something we're good at. Give back to the next generation.

Years ago, as a 12-year old boy on Clark Air Base, Philippines, I was heavily involved with youth sports. I played all of them. What I remember most, after all the fundamental drills and team strategies, were the coaches who gave of their time to teach me and my peers. I remember one in particular. He was an Airman 1st Class, K-9 handler. To me he was larger than life. He would hang out with the team in the video arcade and talk to us about his Air Force experiences and life. He eventually left and came back several years later. I was a 20-year old soccer coach for 8- and 9-year old kids. It was only fitting, we coached against each other for the division championship. The grasshopper beat Master Khan, but it was his time and effort eight years prior that impressed upon me the importance of volunteering.

The challenge is simple; strive to make volunteerism a part of your life. "Well, I just don't have the time?" Make time, schedule it. I notice that what gets scheduled gets done. "Well, it detracts from family time?" Do it together as a family. It's more fun. Volunteering should be more than an EPR bullet; it should be the spirit of what makes us all proud to be Americans.