By Donna Golden, Ph.D.
February 2019 – Donna Golden has been volunteering with DESK for over 15 years, but she is best known as the organizer of an amazing group of Veterans who volunteer at our weekly Food Pantry. On January 26, 2019, Donna received DESK’s Chris Carbone Memorial Service Award, given to a supporter who has made a substantial impact on the lives of those we serve at DESK, as well as in the broader community.—ed.
Did you know there is a growing body of research demonstrating that volunteering provides both physical and mental health benefits to the individuals involved? These benefits include stress reduction, decreases in depression and social isolation, increases in confidence and motivation, providing a sense of meaning and purpose, and an increase in the subjective experience of happiness.
As a clinical psychologist with a four decade-long history of volunteering, I couldn’t find any such studies that included Veterans. Given that, I was inspired by the potential benefits it could offer this population. Veterans with serious mental illness have many strengths, talents and skills as well as aspirations for meaningful connections and activities. And while they may not always be able to maintain employment, they nonetheless may be able to successfully engage in worthwhile and satisfying volunteer work in their communities.
Four years ago, a colleague and I created a program at the VA Connecticut’s Errera Community Care Center (ECCC) in West Haven, an outpatient mental health center that serves Veterans living with persistent mental illness including PTSD, substance abuse disorders and homelessness. The group, named “Vets as Volunteers” (after a suggestion from one of the Vets), was unique among their array of therapeutic offerings. It was it was an opportunity for those involved to take what they had learned via their treatment at the ECCC and contribute meaningfully in their community via a supportive, group program.
Having first volunteered at the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen in 2003 with my husband and son, I knew first-hand about the important services DESK provided to the homeless and hungry in New Haven as well as the high level of professionalism, commitment and compassion of the staff. So, Vets as Volunteers was thrilled to secure a volunteer placement at DESK’s Wednesday Food Pantry. As coordinator, I worked alongside the participating Veterans and other DESK volunteers serving clients. After our shift, the Veterans and I sat together to talk about their experiences, problem-solve any concerns and celebrate successes.
With the warm welcome, gratitude and ongoing support we receive each week from DESK’s staff, the comradery of fellow pantry volunteers and the appreciation expressed by our clients, DESK has been the perfect match for Vets as Volunteers. Participants feel a sense of personal pride being a part of this vital community organization, and have served as committed and dedicated volunteers, demonstrating a high level of interest and enthusiasm for over three years. While the Vets as Volunteers program ceased to be a part of the ECCC this past summer, the core group of participating Veterans have continued working alongside me at the Wednesday Food Pantry.
When asked about their experiences, participating Veterans have expressed that volunteering at DESK has decreased their sense of isolation, provided meaning and purpose, afforded them the chance to focus on something other than their illness and symptoms, allowed them to try new things and experience success as well as feel appreciated for their efforts. One veteran told me that it was his favorite part of the week! While they continue to face ongoing mental health challenges, the Vets as Volunteer program at DESK has become a consistent and supportive aspect of their lives that provides ongoing opportunities for meaningful connection and for making a difference, both in their lives and in their communities. Vets as Volunteers is so grateful to be a part the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen’s Wednesday Food Pantry. Thank you, DESK!