by Beth Ayers, Family Peer Support Lead
July 4, 2023
I have always enjoyed volunteering and service work. In Girl Scouts, they were called service projects. I can remember doing clean up projects and singing at retirement homes. As kids, those of us in the neighborhood would pick up trash around a nearby church. I had a reading “grandma” in 5th grade who I continued to visit for many years after. I also volunteered as a Candy Striper at the hospital delivering mail and flowers. As an adult I learned the importance of service work to my recovery, whether that was opening and closing a meeting, sponsoring others, or being the treasurer for a group. When our kids were little, we would volunteer as a family. Our favorite was volunteering with Family Promise, a local organization that provides housing to families through local churches. We would get to eat dinner with the families in the program and the kids would play afterwards. There were lots of things I loved about it: 1) My kids got to learn about homelessness in a way they could relate with, 2) They got to see that kids without homes or a lot of possessions were the same as them, and 3) It taught them to be grateful for what they had and share with others who have less. My son, in fact, at 4 years old held a free garage sale where everything was free for everyone. Any money that was donated he gave to Family Promise. This turned into a yearly family tradition which grew beyond our wildest dreams.
But I think where volunteering, service work, or helping others has made the biggest impact in my life is when our family was struggling with the affects of mental illness. As a parent, I put in countless hours and endless energy into getting services for our child. Not to mention the emotional toll it took on me. It is so hard to see my children sick or struggling or sad. And parenting was extremely difficult for me, partly because I didn’t feel confident in myself and my parenting, and partly because I was parenting children who had struggles and behaviors that I didn’t understand. But during that period of my life, helping others became so important. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t volunteer lady of the year by any means. Most days I couldn’t even think about what to feed my family for dinner, let alone how to help someone else. But occasionally, an opportunity to serve came that I could participate in. And what I found was that helping others got me out of myself. It gave me a different perspective. It helped me see the good things in my life amidst the hard stuff. It caused me to be grateful for all the things that can get overshadowed by illness and conflict. Serving others connected me to people. Raising a child with a behavioral health challenge or any special healthcare need can be isolating and lonely. I found it hard to relate to other families with kids the same age. My world felt so different from theirs. Helping others reminded me of all the thoughtful acts of kindness others showed me and my family. Volunteering and service work brought me joy and gave me as much as I gave others, if not more. When I love others, I feel more loved. When I comfort another person, I feel comforted. When I support others, I feel more supported. And when I help others, I feel myself healing little by little.
For me, being a Family Peer Supporter does just that. It helps me heal. It gives me a purpose for the difficulties and hardships I’ve walked through. It allows me to show empathy to other families who are raising kids with behavioral health challenges and special healthcare needs. When I get to serve another person by walking beside them down a familiar, overwhelming, hard road, I feel less alone. By bringing hope into someone else’s situation, hope shines brighter in mine.