Long-Term Volunteering and Self-Care

Written by Paige Hernandez, CSU STEM VISTA 2015-16 CSUPERB

During our VISTA Midyear Retreat in Ben Lomond, California, we participated in several group activities that allowed us to reflect on our year thus far, as well as our cultural and professional identities. Perhaps the most impactful activity for me was the “Things I Don’t Have to Think About” exercise. During this exercise, each VISTA made an individual paper link and then our facilitator, Cathy, read statements about social identity that we could either agree or disagree with. For example, “Today I don’t have to think about… having enough money to pay my rent on time”. If we did not worry about this in our everyday life, we each added a link to our individual chains. If we did however worry about paying rent as a VISTA, we abstained from adding a link to the chain. At the end of the exercise, we got into small groups and talked about how the lengths of our chains related to our lives as VISTA’s and privilege in society.

What was so important for me about this activity is that I realized there are so many things that I worry out about on a daily basis, but set aside to focus on my professional life. Things such as how people perceive me because of the color of my skin or my gender, to my overwhelming anxiety about financial instability and food insecurity. Working as a full-time VISTA, living alone in a new city, and surviving on a “modest” living stipend have also seemed to exacerbate these anxieties even more. It wasn’t until this reflection exercise that I realized how much of my stress is directly related to my VISTA life, and I was beginning to burn out after a year and half of VISTA service. This “VISTA life crisis” influenced me to start looking into how I could manage my stress in a more positive way, and led me to research the topic of self-care.

Self-care is described as, “What people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness. It is a broad concept encompassing hygiene (general and personal), nutrition (type and quality of food eaten), lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure etc.), environmental factors (living conditions, social habits, etc.) socio-economic factors (income level, cultural beliefs, etc.) and self-medication,” (World Health Organization, 1998). Paige Self Care Plan.jpg Not only is self-care important for overall mental and physical health, but as an AmeriCorps VISTA (or other long-term volunteer) self-care is key in preventing burnout. Burnout is described as the changes someone goes through in response to constant stress in the workplace, and is measured by exhaustion (physical and emotional fatigue), cynicism (greater distance from one’s work), and personal inefficiency (loss of job satisfaction) (Jansen, 2 010, p. 6). In a 2010 dissertation, burnout and changes in mental health were measured in AmeriCorps and Catholic Network of Volunteer Services (CNVS) members during two points in their service terms. Results overtime indicated that within both organizations, these long-term volunteers experienced an increase in cynicism and emotional exhaustion, as well as a decrease in self-esteem (Jansen, 2010, p. 38-39). The silver lining to these results however, is that of the volunteers who fully participated in the study, no one left their service term early. The volunteers also reported a significant increase in the adoption of positive coping styles over the course of service (Jansen, 2010, p. 39). Positive coping styles include seeking support, problem-solving, relaxation, and physical recreation as opposed to negative coping styles like denial, self-blame, and frequent venting (UCLA Dual Diagnosis Program, 2016).  I was not shocked to see that burnout rates increased in long-term volunteers overtime, because as VISTA’s we are prepared for the work and lifestyle to be challenging. I was pleasantly surprised however, to see other AmeriCorps members self-report that they engaged in positive coping styles and self-care practices as a way to counteract burnout.  Even a small change in mindset or lifestyle can really make the difference between having an impactful service term, or a negative volunteer experience.

Showing off our new books from the CSU STEM VISTA book exchange! Reading can be an amazing stress relief tool.

Since our February retreat, one of my personal goals has been to establish a self-care routine that works with my VISTA lifestyle. My self-care routine outside of work includes eating healthy meals, taking yoga and weight lifting classes at my local gym, checking a new book out at the library every couple of weeks, and journaling on my iPhone using the Grid Diary app.  During the work week, my self-care routine is as simple as using my paid vacation days, eating lunch outside or away from my desk, and attending free workshops and conferences on topics that interest me. Last month, I attended a free Women of Color Conference at UCSB with three of my VISTA co-workers Emily, Nenetzin, and Noya. During the conference we explored topics like intersectional feminism and social justice, and then spent our free time relaxing and bonding. The self-care routine that I’ve developed as a VISTA is something that I want to continue to practice as I begin graduate school, and share with the college students I work with in the future. For anyone who is interested in creating a self-care plan of their own, check out some of my favorite tools and apps below!

Self-care tools & apps:

  1. Create a self-care calendar
  2. Make your own self-care plan!
  3. Download free apps on your smartphone
    • Insight Timer – a meditation timer that allows you to meditate on your own, with a community group, or with a guided session
    • Relax Melodies – select sounds and melodies to help you fall (and stay) asleep
    • My Fitness Pal– free nutritional tracker and calorie counter
    • Sleep Cycle– an alarm clock that tracks your sleep cycle and wakes you up when you’re well rested
    • 5 minute yoga – quick and effective yoga poses
    • Grid Diary– a simple, daily journal that allows you to reflect on the positive aspects of your day


Works Cited:
Jansen, Kate L., “Coping, stress, and burnout factors in long-term volunteering” (2010). Theses and Dissertations. Paper 868
UCLA Dual Diagnosis Program, “How Do You Cope?” (2016). Web. 17 Mar. 2016. <https://www.semel.ucla.edu/dual-diagnosis-program/News_and_Resources/How_Do_You_Cope&gt;.
World Health Organization (WHO). Health Education in Self-Care: Possibilities and Limitations. Report of a Scientific Consultation. Geneva, Switzerland. November 21–25, 1983.

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