08/03/2007 11:09 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Balancing Your Life: Want to Make a Difference? Volunteer!

Volunteering is good for the human spirit and the world. Jane Olson has spent a lifetime volunteering for causes that promote international peace and justice. This wife and grandmother of eight spoke with me about the passion and commitment it takes to make a difference in the world and why spirituality and femininity are so important. Now she is Chair of the International Board of Human Rights Watch, but she started years ago as a volunteer.

Jane, you've been a volunteer since you got of school, got married and had children. How did this career evolve?

JANE OLSON: Well, I started as a volunteer when my children were very young. One of the first causes that I volunteered at was Head Start. My children were toddlers, I wanted them to have -- part of it was selfish -- I wanted them to have the experience of being in a diverse classroom because we lived in a suburb of Los Angeles that was pretty much all white. Part of being a volunteer, I think, is that you have the ability to be a little selfish, since you're giving your time, I look for people that I want to support and that I can also learn from. I consider my volunteer work my graduate school. And I learned a lot about being a mother, and being a parent through all the things I gave my children when they were young.

What did you learn at Head Start?

To play well with others! At Head Start we worked with children who sometimes had never even sat in a chair, children who had never used a fork or been served a real meal. I believed a lot in the importance of that organization and I also learned how important love is. You know many times some of the troubled children that came from abusive homes had never really been held. I would just hold them or push them in a swing or sing a song to them. I spent a lot of time just doing the nurturing that I give to my own children.

Do you think it's a different world today then it was when you had your children? And where does activism fit in?

Well I think the needs and the pressures are much the same.

You know many of my friends who worked and had careers struggled very hard to find balance in their life and young mothers today do too. Maybe the difference today is that young women today have to work. They don't really have the choice because most families have to have two incomes

I find that young people today really want to make a difference. There's a lot of idealism and what I'm constantly asked, especially by women, is how I managed to have this career and still have an intact family and I try to explain to them that life doesn't have to be linear. I think we used to believe that you go to school and then you work and then you retire. Then maybe when you retire you can do some interesting volunteer work, and travel and I don't think life is that way. I think you should always be learning, always educating yourself, and work can take many different forms even while you are raising family.

Your work for Human Rights Watch has taken you all over the world. What place or situation stretched you the most?

Bosnia. And what I learned was to get past the statistics and go back on my training as a journalist. I became a storyteller, and I took a lot of photographs. I interviewed women who were survivors of brutal abuse, who had witnessed horrible killings and devastation in their villages. I told their stories of survivorship and how they were building communities within refugee camps. And I learned that if you inspire people and you put a face on the suffering everyone says we have to do something. So that was a big lesson to me.

What about your husband? As you travel around the world does he worry?

I'm sure he worries about me, but he's very supportive and I think he's very proud.

He's always my best audience and when I come back we usually go out to dinner and he wants to hear everything. He's a great listener and he gives me wonderful advice on how to prioritize the issues that I've learned about and how to present them .

The Los Angeles feminist majority, an organization that promotes women's rights, recently honored you with the Eleanor Roosevelt Award. What were your thoughts as you were standing on the stage accepting that award?

JO: What I truly think is that being a mother is the greatest gift there is. I'm very proud of my children and what they've done with their own lives and I hope they know that I did whatever I could on behalf of the big issues of their lifetimes.

ES: You've devoted your life to international peace and justice. Has it been worth it?

JO: I would say yes.

Jane says women understand the importance of supporting people who do good work. Upon accepting the Eleanor Roosevelt award in Los Angeles recently, she reminded me that bringing out the best in people, motivating them to do their best and recognizing talent in others is what she tries to do as a leader. Good tips to remember at home or the office!