During our time in the Washington, D.C., area, I practiced the power of saying “no.” Those three years were a time for me to focus on myself and my career, including going back to work full-time for the first time in a long time. After returning to the United States, after three years overseas, I needed to take a breath. I was burnt out and had some grief packed away that I needed time to process. Between the end of the long workday, shuttling my kids to various activities and going to sleep, I had no interest in getting involved in anything. The fact that we weren’t conveniently plopped next to a base helped. “Out of sight, out of mind,” was the only way I was going to keep my focus on home, on my career and on me.
While I did practice the power of saying “no,” I can’t say I was totally successful. I still managed to get myself appointed to an advisory committee for our local district and volunteer for plenty of things at work well out of my job description. We’ll call it an 80% success story.
Now we’ve moved back to North Carolina — back to the land of jet noise, “The sound of freedom.” Though we aren’t exactly on or near a base, the entire area around MCAS Cherry Point, Camp Lejeune, and New River is essentially a base community. Folks are largely active duty, dependents, retired or supporters of the first three groups. I am back among my people, and I am itching for a project, a place in the community.
I understand that I am coming at this urge — to get plugged in and give back to my military community — a little differently than before. I do (thankfully) still have a full-time job, two very active kids, a house that I love — and would like to spend time in, and a very emotionally attached dog who loves having me around. At this stage in the game, the strategy is motivated but intentional. I want to be careful not to overfill my schedule and burn myself out just to support others. My favorite phrase is, “I do not need to set myself on fire to keep you warm.” It’s my little personal reminder that I can’t, and shouldn’t, take on too much at the cost of neglecting myself.
This motivated but intentional approach means figuring out where to plug in. What am I good at, who could use my talents and what feels rewarding to me? From there, it’s time to lay out the logistics and see what is possible.
Find Your Why
Ever been in the midst of something and can’t remember why you started? No matter how much you love a job, a volunteer role or a cause, it will stress you out and eat away your free time. The only thing that makes all that self-inflicted stress worth it is having a “why” behind showing up and sharing your talent with a cause or organization.
Think about it. What inspires you? What fires you up? What is the cause you can’t walk away from because you know if it isn’t you who owns it, no one will? For me, that cause is caring and advocating for service members and military families. Your passion might fall in the lane of education, the environment, physical or mental health, faith, sports, animals, art, nutrition, cultural awareness, equal rights, or truly anything in between.
Some of us are just lucky enough to already have a why that is satisfied with a job or an existing volunteer role. If that’s the case, pile on more of the same if that’s what calls to you. There’s no shame in the game of giving back to your community in a completely unrelated way because you need a break from the good work you’re already doing. It’s important to find a way to plug in a hobby. For example, make blankets for newborns that can be used in hospitals. Build houses, or help an elderly neighbor with yard work. The point is your vocation is not the only way you can give back to the community and the people around you. It isn’t the only way to feel the endorphins of a job well done. Once you have your why, the rest is easy.
When and How Often?
Okay, I lied. Identifying when and how often you can commit yourself to a volunteer role is also difficult. Especially if you’re a serial over-committer with an aversion to the word “no.” When you care deeply about a cause, it’s hard to say no and tap out when you need a break. It’s the whole, “If not me, then who?” mentality.
So, be really — I mean brutally — honest with yourself. How much can you take on in addition to your current schedule, and how much are you willing to take on (yes, these can be, and should be, different answers). Leave time to just be. Leave time to reflect. Leave time to cuddle with your emotionally dependent dog. So (to me and anyone else who needs to hear this), get settled in a new place — get a routine — before you commit to something that could potentially dominate your schedule. Note how much time you have in a day, in a week, in a month so you know what you’re capable of. As someone who really hates asking for help, ask your family to weigh in. They love you and don’t want to see you frazzled seven nights a week.
Who, What, Where?
Now that you know what you want and how much time you can devote, put your feelers out. What is around you — both on and off base? This is your chance to interview an organization. Be selective. Don’t take on a dysfunctional organization because you think you can change it in your three free hours per month. You can’t, but you will try, and burn yourself out (and likely a few bridges) in the process. Find a place that will use your talent, value you and help you grow just as much as you help them.
Whatever you can offer, and whoever is lucky enough to receive your talent and time, you will make a difference. Don’t lose sight of that. Hold on to your why. Maintain your boundaries, and there is a positive experience waiting for you.