03/31/2011 12:39 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2011

The Reluctant Volunteer: Changing the World with a Single Day's Work

A funny thing happens when you volunteer -- lives are changed whether you know it or not. It doesn't matter how much time you put into it, or whether you ever go back to volunteer there ever again. Quite simply, there is a chain reaction happening that we don't really think about, but which we would be foolish to underestimate.

Let's take Guatemala as our volunteering place. I've never been myself, but people sure seem to love that place. Maybe it's really beautiful, or the people are friendly, or the need is greater, or there are more direct flights.

Okay, so put yourself in Guatemala for a moment, and let's say that you take a few days out of your vacation to volunteer. Heck, let's say you volunteer for just a single day. Maybe you've come across an orphanage there. The kids are cute, and you feel like it will enrich your time in Guatemala to get to know the locals there. Or maybe you've just met a fellow traveler, somebody really attractive, and you feel like this would make you seem like a really great guy/girl if they see you volunteering.

Now, you find yourself playing with the kids. You're connecting with them. You play games with them. You chat with the staff, who tell you the stories of the children, of what might have torn them from their families, of what disease or disaster might have taken their parents from them. You bond with them, you eat with them, they climb on you and ask you to carry them around. Maybe you forget about impressing the person you're with, maybe not. It's not important -- not yet, anyway.

You leave the orphanage the next day, and have a great rest of your vacation in Guatemala. A week later, you're on a flight back home.

At this point, let me tell you what will happen: people will ask you about your trip. And I guarantee that no matter what other amazing things you did in Guatemala, you will, 100 percent of the time, talk about your day spent in the orphanage.

It's just human nature. It could be because you were genuinely touched by them. It could be because you learned more about the culture and history of Guatemala in that single day than you did on the rest of your trip. Or it could be -- and let's be honest, I fell into this camp when I was in Nepal -- because you want others to know how selfless you are, how compassionate you are, giving up your vacation time to help children.

The truth is, it doesn't really matter which of these categories you fall into. What will happen, guaranteed, is that you will share the story with somebody. More likely, you'll share it with many people, and you will speak with passion about it, describe the children in detail. And that story -- not the story about how you almost killed yourself zip-lining through the jungle or the time when the monkey pooped on your head -- is what your friends will remember. (Well, they might remember the monkey head-pooping too. But they'll also remember the orphanage experience.)

That's where you start planting seeds.

Others want to have that kind of experience. So the next time your friends go on an adventure, they'll look for similar opportunities, even if it's just a single day of volunteering. And they'll pass that story along, and so on and so forth.

Somewhere along that line, somebody is going to be deeply touched their experience. So touched, in fact, that they will realize they've found their life's calling. They will raise money to make a difference, or move to that country to try to affect change.

If we think of small change occurring because a single butterfly flaps its wings, a single act of volunteering is a tree full of sparrows, hundreds of them lifting off at the same moment. It can't be any other way.

And here's the kind of cool part about all of this: the person that ultimately ends up affecting that deep change in the world? That might be you. It's your choice.