Person-Centered Volunteering

Throughout my careers in health care, disability services, long-term care and behavioral health, there has been a common thread, a commitment to creating cultures of person-centeredness.

What does that mean? In health care we advocate for people during the end of their life and support their right to decide for themselves about the quality of their life and desire to maintain or refuse life-sustaining treatment. We encourage families to have conversations, ask the patient about his or her wishes, meeting individuals where they are, respecting their personhood.

In educating students with disabilities, we develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) with person-centered education as the goal, focusing on the strengths of the individual, rather than on the challenges. Is the student a good reader? Does she like technology? How can we be more individualized in our approaches to teaching? Are the measurements aligned with the way the student can demonstrate his abilities beyond the test scores?

In long-term care, regulations require nursing homes to provide person-centered care. What does this mean for a person with dementia? We train nursing home staff to learn more about the person, to see who he or she was before the disease. Knowing individual strengths and passions, and seeing that we all have a common humanity, reduces the emphasis on what the person can’t do and helps us focus on what the person can still do. Can we get caregivers to see the social worker, the bank president, the tailor, the mother, instead of the disease?

In behavioral health, advocates work tirelessly to educate policymakers about the stigma of treating mental health and substance use disorders differently from physical health issues. In order to progress, we have to see the person first and use his or her strengths to engage in long-term recovery.  Those who are in recovery are becoming a new peer workforce and are using their lived experience, their personhood, and their strengths to give back by providing hope and support to others trying to achieve a life in recovery.

What does it mean to be a person-centered volunteer?

New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his column, “A Nation of Weavers” (February 18, 2019), talks about the need to build communities of weavers from the ground up.  He talks about the common trait of “radical mutuality” – that we are all completely equal regardless of where society ranks us.

To be person-centered, regardless of the context, is first about being curious and asking questions in our daily building of relationships, understanding, learning about others.  It is to be genuine and authentic in conveying the concept of “I see you as a whole person; I feel our common humanity.” It is about a belief that we are all more alike than we are different. It is about doing better.

A person-centered volunteer recognizes that we have a common problem to solve. We can do this by going into our communities and seeing the opportunities and strengths of people and organizations, and their missions. It is about getting outside ourselves physically or virtually and growing our empathy, our heart, our compassion. When we understand our common humanity, the real meaning of volunteering, community service and the common good begins and we no longer do things “for others” but we work side by side “with others,” pulling the threads as one community of weavers. By doing so, everyone rises.