Volunteer: A Brief History

tarted living in groups. As I explained in my post about the benefits of volunteering, people have volunteered throughout all of recorded history. In fact, some historians believe that without volunteers early civilizations would never have survived. The ancient Romans and Greeks were pioneers for their time; they had social welfare programs for the unfortunate citizens. We can thank them for the first recorded references to volunteering and being charitable with your time.

The Industrial Age was a rough period for workers in Europe and America alike; some companies took advantage of their workers by paying low wages, working them long hours, and having extremely unsafe working conditions (think child labor). It wasn’t until government laws were passed that these issues began to improve; however, by then, things had gotten so bad that many wealthy businessmen decided to take action themselves. They created organizations called “friendly societies” (also known as self-help groups) where members would pay dues each month which was used to help anyone who became sick or injured while they were earning money through work (and unable to work). These societies eventually evolved into modern day health insurance companies like Aetna or Blue Cross/Blue Shield.[1] Did you know? People still volunteer today at friendly societies! That’s right! You can still volunteer at any health insurance company if you want. The young people who volunteer today are working in an organization just like their grandparents – helping people who need health care, and they get to learn while they’re at it.

Volunteering in America has a long history too. In colonial times, people volunteered to help their community by donating time, materials or money for almost every cause imaginable (building houses for the poor, taking care of injured soldiers returning from war and fighting fires). After the Civil War ended, programs were created where volunteers could come together and “do good works” (that’s what they called it) by helping others.[2] This was an era when women didn’t have many rights; however the young ladies who became part of these social movements often found themselves with more freedom than those who stayed in their homes. Some of these groups only lasted a couple years after World War I ended; however others are still around to this day! They’ve changed names over time but continue to do great things for communities all over America.[3] The Girl Scouts is one group that comes immediately to mind as well as 4H clubs. It’s also important to note that during this period of volunteering many organizations started doing something new: asking volunteers for donations! Many charities could no longer rely on private donations alone so they started asking people if they wanted to donate money or goods instead. This was an important change because it made the relationship between volunteer and the organization more formal.

Most people don’t realize this, but volunteering changed dramatically in America in the 1960’s. The rise of the civil rights movement brought about a new type of volunteer to help oppressed groups like women, African Americans and Hispanics.[4] The anti-war movement also gave birth to a new kind of volunteer; many young men who had recently been drafted into war decided they wanted to do something positive while they were home on leave. They started doing things like helping with social welfare programs for poor children or elderly people. It wasn’t long before these men realized that there was no way for them to communicate what they were doing overseas so many started holding events where veterans would share their stories with an audience (a program called “Vet Voices” is still active today). These events helped turn public opinion against American involvement in Vietnam; however it took another decade before we finally ended our involvement there.[5]

I talked about how volunteering changed after World War II ended; however I’m not done talking about volunteering yet! We’re going back to World War II now! There were some changes that happened after WWII finished that drastically affected volunteers everywhere – especially here in America.

It’s important to remember that not everyone is a big fan of volunteering. In fact, some people think that the government should be taking care of everything instead of relying on private individuals to help out (they’re called naysayers). There are still a lot of people who think this way. I mean, if you look at your bank account and see $1 million dollars there then you might start thinking about it too! However I would suggest that before you judge someone else for volunteering, try actually volunteering yourself first. Volunteerism is not just a good idea because it helps others; it’s also good for the volunteer themselves! It can make you more trusting, helpful and supportive in your day-to-day life; however it should also be noted that there are sometimes some negative things about volunteering too – regardless if you’re doing something nice or something tough like fighting fires.[6]

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