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Government Commentary

Akst: Helping out to help oneself

“What are we writing about this week?” a guy on the work crew asked me Saturday.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I might write about this if I’m still alive.”

I’m still alive, and “this” is why I was part of that work crew.

Earlier this summer, two families affiliated with our son’s school, St. Mary’s Catholic School in Sycamore, generously donated money for some new playground equipment.

School parents caught wind of the windfall Aug. 5, when the principal sent out a mass email with the subject line, “SHH … Surprise for the kids!” Other than secrecy, the email asked for volunteers to show up at 7 a.m. Saturday to help assemble the new stuff.

Our son had grumbled about the sparse playground, and I haven’t done much volunteering or donating, so I planned to help for a couple hours.

After all, the email just said “new playground equipment.” How hard could that be?

We found out early Saturday morning as volunteers arrived, saw all the stuff laid out, and said (with a mixture of glee, wonder and panic) things like, “I had no idea it would be like this.”

But we did it.

About 20 volunteers put in a long, hot day building the structure (shout-outs to Machesney Park-based Custom Playground Inc. folks who supervised). Someone said it takes a Custom professional crew four days to erect a structure like that. Our gang built it in one day. I left after 11 hours, sore, sunburned and dehydrated, but certain the day was well spent.

Tuesday evening, another band of volunteers spread mulch from a pile the size of Mount Rainier.

The new playground opened Wednesday in time for the first day of school. It’s way cool. Cruise down Edward Street in Sycamore (next to Kindred Hospital) if you want to see it.

A few observations from my day of volunteering:

• Working on a computer doesn’t build upper body strength as much as one might hope.

• I’m rethinking my assessment that I’m reasonably mechanically inclined.

• Those curvy, plastic slides in primary colors? I would describe what assembling one is like, but the language I’d use would be edited out by this family newspaper.

• Hammers and concrete can fix many problems.

• Sweetie, a new skid-steer loader with multiple attachments would be a great Christmas gift. Love you!

Anyway, part of my job as your humble columnist is to investigate why things are the way they are, so I looked into why it felt so good to help out for a bit. Those Pulitzer Prize cretins will doubtless ignore me again, but I found some startling information.

Namely, volunteering is not only good for whomever benefits. It’s also good for you.

Writing for Psychology Today, Christine L. Carter, Ph.D., notes that “People who volunteer tend to experience fewer aches and pains. Giving help to others protects overall health twice as much as aspirin protects against heart disease.”

It gets better. Carter said research indicates that people 55 and older who volunteer at two or more organizations gain benefits stronger than exercising four times a week or going to church. “It means that volunteering is nearly as beneficial to our health as quitting smoking.” she says.

Further (and in stark contrast to so much Illinois news), we do pretty well when it comes to volunteerism.

The Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that tracks volunteerism and pairs volunteers with projects and partners, said that in 2011, Illinoisans volunteered 35.9 hours. The national average was 32.7 hours.

Now, I’m going to volunteer to be a Metra board member. How bad could that be?

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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