Lasting Lessons from Volunteering

Jeanne Tedrow, President & CEO, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits

“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” –Winston Churchill

At our recent North Carolina Center for Nonprofits board meeting, our Chair invited us to share an icebreaker with a question: “What was our earliest experience with a nonprofit or memory of our experience in philanthropy?” We do this personal sharing at the beginning of our board meetings to help us become more acquainted personally and in our professional work. It has become a nice tradition, especially during our virtual meetings throughout the pandemic.

The question stirred in me a memory of my first volunteer experience when I was about twelve years old. It was at Camp Willow, a summer camp offered by a local nonprofit that served those with differing abilities. One of the campers was my brother, Walter. When I learned that he would be attending the camp, I asked if I could go with him as a volunteer to help with the camp programs and other campers. I learned so much that summer – about myself, about being a volunteer, and about the differing abilities among the campers. 

When I think about how my life evolved, I have come to understand how profoundly this early volunteer experience and Walter influenced my life choices. From the age of twelve until I was old enough to become employed as a teenager, I continued to volunteer at Camp Willow for four more summers.

As good as my volunteer experience was each summer, I also have painful memories of how students identified with special needs were treated by other students. The special needs students, including my brother, were placed in classes separated from the mainstream of regular classrooms. Unfortunately, some of those identified as able-bodied students poked fun at and called out mean names to the students in the special needs classes. We know that children can be quite cruel because of a lack of understanding. Thankfully, I also saw those who were kind and accepting, opening their lives to Walter and others like him with special needs. These lessons amplified my best experiences.

Like many in the sector who have been influenced by their volunteerism, this early experience shaped my perception of how to treat others, especially those who may look or act differently than me. These experiences shaped me, and how and why I came to value inclusion. I have carried these lessons with me throughout my career. I experienced this at an early age, and it strengthened my resolve to build and sustain an inclusive culture wherever, whenever I can. 

What does it mean to be inclusive? Definitions from my online search state:

  • The action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.
  • The practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of other minority groups.

Building an inclusive organization or community often gives benefits that are shared by all. An example of this is demonstrated by the “curb cut effect” that grew out of the universal design concept. The curb cut effect states that when you design for disabilities, you make things better for everyone in the process. For example, curb cuts on sidewalks made it easier not only for people with differing abilities but also for people pushing strollers, the elderly with walkers, or those rolling a bag behind them. Implementing this design across the country was no easy task but the work was well worth it. 

As a young volunteer, I saw and felt the benefits of creating an inclusive environment. At Camp Willow, I saw how the campers enjoyed the opportunity to engage in sports activities alongside the volunteers. Our teams were comprised of both and in this way, we all learned to support each other as we competed to win. For our team to win, the volunteers encouraged each camper to learn the sport and participate to the best of their ability.  All of us benefited and learned from one another.

As my brother Walter and I aged, we continued as a family to support him and his sports career. He went on to compete in the Special Olympics and our whole family became volunteers in those events. I became involved in organizations that helped create opportunities for those with differing abilities and began my career with a major in special education. All these experiences helped pave the way for me to have a personal commitment to building inclusive organizations. Having a special needs brother taught me how important inclusion was in our family and in our community. 

Likewise, being a volunteer in so many organizations during my lifetime has ingrained in me the value of volunteers in our nonprofits. Through these combined experiences, I learned how important it is to be inclusive. My personal commitment to inclusion is rooted in my memories of Walter and all that he gave me and so many others in his lifetime. When he passed away this past July, our family celebrated his life with the staff and volunteers of the adult group home in which he lived most of his adulthood. 

Because of nonprofit organizations like the ones that supported him and the volunteers who contributed so much of their time and talent, Walter and so many like him have lived a more fulfilled life. Because he was included in our community, his life and ours was truly transformed. The benefits of inclusion accrued to all of us, and for Walter and the life he lived, I am so grateful. 

At the Center, we value inclusion and believe that our organization is stronger as a result. We believe that building inclusive organizations helps us live into our mission. That said, our work is ongoing. We have listened and learned along the way, and we have so much more to do.

As nonprofit practitioners and leaders, we can draw lessons from these experiences. Building inclusive organizations is a strength that helps us consider what is best for all. The example of universal design encourages us to infuse inclusion and accessibility into all that we do. Being inclusive helps all of us live more fulfilling lives.


Explore resources on building an inclusive organizations.