Today is the beginning of National Volunteer Week -- seven days when Americans are encouraged to donate their time and energy to a variety of good causes, and inspire friends and family to do the same. But why bother going to all that effort when social media has transformed activism into a desktop sport?
Many will mark National Volunteer Week simply by re-tweeting or forwarding an e-mail. "Slacktivism," as many have called it, is quick, painless, and makes us feel good about ourselves. Every once in a while, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, the public outcry stirred through social media can generate real-world impact. The magnitude of Joseph Kony's villainy was amplified so dramatically by a video that went viral worldwide over social media channels that his downfall might soon be upon us. Social media can also prove a powerful fundraising tool. Following the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, social media helped the American Red Cross rapidly raise more than $20 million through a text-to-give campaign.
Instances like these are reminders not only of social media's power, but its limitations. Technology has made it easier than ever to shine a light on issues. Our world, however, is one where few problems can be solved simply by way of public outcry. Most challenges require the dedicated efforts of others, selfless individuals who often have no direct stake in the outcome of a particular problem. Seeding awareness of an issue is a crucial step in solving problems; but far from the last. Social media and other technologies have proven to be invaluable in rallying support around worthy causes, but they can never replace putting on one's coat, walking out the door, and helping another human being.
This is the model on which Project HOPE was founded more than half a century ago. Project HOPE was born from the principle that most problems, even global health crises, can be addressed through the generosity, compassion, and expertise of others. Since 1958, Project HOPE has sought to make sustainable advances in global health by sending volunteers -- armed with medical training, supplies, and selflessness -- to remote and often dire regions of the world. Following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, more than 100 doctors, nurses, and medical professionals volunteered to travel with Project HOPE to treat the injured and deliver more than $60 million in medicine and medical supplies. When a cholera outbreak made things even worse, many others -- including experts in the disease -- traveled to the ravaged country to help treat the infected.
The generosity of these individuals and others volunteering with organizations around the world never ceases to amaze me. More often than not, however, it is the volunteers themselves who return from their missions profoundly changed and grateful for the experience. These feelings are not unique to any particular non-profit organization's work, but rather a testament to the incredible impact helping others has on us, and how that is a vital part of the human story we are all writing.
In 2005, Sheila Cardwell, a nurse from Salt Lake City, Utah, listened as her colleague described the experience of helping tsunami victims in Indonesia with Project HOPE. Soon after, Sheila offered her time and medical expertise to help the organization respond to Hurricane Katrina, joining nearly 60 Project HOPE volunteers aboard U.S. Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort. Sheila provided tetanus shots and a wide variety of treatment to workers. She also walked door-to-door, offering food and water while checking on victims who needed treatment and medicine. Sheila has since volunteered on several other humanitarian missions with Project HOPE.
This February, Dr. Jonathan Laryea, a colorectal surgeon from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and a native of Ghana, took his first volunteer trip with Project HOPE. Dr. Laryea and ten other surgeons traveled to Liberia, performing surgeries and providing training to physicians from across West Africa. Dr. Laryea says that none of his colleagues complained, despite working from morning until midnight. Some medical specialties, he says, do not even exist in the country.
When the importance of a cause is most easily measured in Likes, Fans, and re-tweets, it can become easy to lose sight of the impact one person can have on the world around him or her. There are 1.5 million registered non-profit groups in the U.S. alone whose missions are accomplished only when others volunteer their time. Take this week to find the group whose work matches your passion, whatever it may be, and get involved. If you are unable to use National Volunteer Week as an opportunity to get involved in whatever cause moves you, take the chance to remember and support others who give up their time, energy, and resources to help others with their bare hands, and help them continue to do so.
Tweeting about good causes doesn't hurt -- and for young people "slacktivism" can be a good gateway toward the stirrings of a broader social consciousness. But true engagement begins by lifting your sights from your mobile device out to the world at large, and personally embracing someone in need.
John P. Howe III, M.D., is President and CEO of Project HOPE, a global non-profit organization, providing medical training, health education and humanitarian assistance in more than 35 countries.
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