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Guest: Building the nation without making noise

BY LAMIA ZIA | APRIL 19, 2010 7:30 AM

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“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” —Winston Churchill

I first read this quote as a high-school student. But it took awhile for me to understand it until I personally experienced the efforts of volunteers working selflessly.

As a foreign visiting scholar from Pakistan, I once was offered a position without pay at a think tank. It honestly bewildered me because nothing is free in the United States. And particularly in these tough economic circumstances, work without pay may not inspire many of us.

Nevertheless, after volunteering for more than one year, I realized the value and worth of being a volunteer. From collecting food for the poor to teaching children in schools, volunteers are the people bringing change to their communities.

My home country’s most well-known philanthropist is Abdul Sattar Edhi, the founder of the largest and most organized social-welfare system in Pakistan, and his foundation has scores of volunteers across the country. The Edhi Foundation provides ambulances and hospitals, shelters for the destitute, and homes for orphans. No matter the natural disaster, I always see this man playing an active role in helping people all around the country.

With exemplary tenacity, Edhi has pursued his mission for the last four decades. He has quietly brought about a remarkable change in the social attitudes in Pakistan toward community welfare by instilling in ordinary citizens a consistent desire to participate in public welfare services.

Nevertheless, challenges are great for volunteers in Pakistan, particularly because there isn’t as much recognition and appreciation for volunteers compared with the United States.

For example, the 155 volunteers for the local Retired and Senior Volunteer Program worked 4,899 hours last year in area schools, helping children with their reading, writing, and public-speaking skills.

Iowa City has exceptionally high rates of volunteer activity, with approximately 49 percent of residents reporting they volunteer. Iowa ranks fifth in the nation for volunteer service rates, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Apart from the work, it’s the sense that you are bringing a positive change in someone’s life that motivates volunteers such as Mel Sunshine, a 73-year-old retired microbiologist and RSVP volunteer.

“Now, it’s my time to give back to the community,” he told me in an interview.

He volunteers 38 hours a month at different tasks such as reading to junior-high children, analyzing data at the Iowa City Police Department, and preparing mock trials for law students at the University of Iowa College of Law.

Working with RSVP, a nationwide volunteer program sponsored locally by Elder Services Inc., Sunshine was able to share his knowledge and talents with people of all ages, particularly children.

Groups and individuals such as these underscore that even during a time of prolonged economic recession, volunteering has remained steady in the U.S., which is a quite laudable spirit of the nation.

I hope one day, Pakistan and other developing countries will recognize the efforts of volunteers, building the nation without making noise.

Lamia Zia, a freelance journalist, worked in print and broadcast journalism in Pakistan and now writes a regular column for The Daily Iowan.

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