The Surprising Power of Volunteering

Today we are sharing an inspiring story and wonderful opportunity from Terri Wingham, Founder & Executive Director of A Fresh Chapter.  


TerriIf you had told me when I was in the trenches of surgeries, chemotherapy and symptom management that the way to heal the “emotional scars of cancer” was to step outside myself and help someone else, I might have punched you (or at least wanted to).

How dare you suggest to me that the way out of this hell is to volunteer? Do you have any idea what I have been through?”

And yet, as treatment came to a close, I felt completely unprepared for the mounting pressure to get back to “normal” or to magically discover my “new normal” – whatever that meant. If I had to choose one word to describe how I felt during the bleak months between my double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, it would be lost. Lost with no road map for how to become found again. I felt like a mutilated, fragmented, and depleted shadow of the successful, outgoing, put-together 30-year-old, I had been the year before.

It was only in my search for a bridge out of this darkness that I stumbled into the power of volunteering as a mechanism for healing.

It was New Year’s Day 2011. The night before I’d had a falling out with a close friend who told me she felt like cancer had turned me into a bitter and negative person. She worried that if I didn’t “snap out of it”, no one would want to be my friend anymore.

To be honest, I had become bitter and negative. I felt like an alien in a world of surface level conversations, pretty dresses, and perfect lives. I didn’t know how to fit back into the life cancer had ripped me from, but I knew I didn’t want to take up permanent residence in my isolation and anger.

I wanted to feel inspired again.

On January 1, 2011, I took a long walk by the water in Vancouver and asked myself these Terri with Boyquestions, “What would inspire me? What could I do that would be so epic that cancer would no longer be my defining story?”

Out of nowhere, I had a vision of volunteering in Africa. It didn’t immediately compute. Africa?!? I had never traveled anywhere beyond Europe. I had no desire to serve in the Peace Corp. I had barely even volunteered at home before cancer. Yet, this vision of me boarding a plane to the other side of the world gave me something to hang on to.

Three months later, I arrived in Cape Town and fell headlong into the love of a group of rambunctious toddlers at an underfunded daycare. For six weeks, each morning I helped to feed them, teach them basic English, and show them some extra love and attention. In the process, they gave me joy, and hope, and a feeling of purpose – just a few of the things cancer had stolen from me.

In the four years since, here’s what I have learned about why volunteering can help us heal and set us on the path to discovering new purpose in our lives:

  1. We see that struggle is universal and so is resilience. When we meet people who have dealt with overwhelming challenges in their lives and yet still choose to get up every day and move forward, it reminds us that we can do the same thing.
  2. We build new connections with like-minded people. Cancer can change our friendships, our perspectives, and our way of being in the world. It can be excruciatingly lonely to feel like people can’t relate to us. But, when we do things in-line with our interests and values, we quickly develop new connections and friendships.
  3. We get to discover new skills and new purpose. By finding ways to give back, we are exposed to new ideas, new ways of looking at the world, and new opportunities to feel lit up by life. These experiences can help us develop new career paths or uncover new hobbies.

An Opportunity for You To Start Fresh

Terri with GirlIf the idea of blending volunteering and meaningful travel resonates with you, A Fresh Chapter invites you to apply to join us for our fourth India Odyssey Program in March 2016.

You’ll have the chance to volunteer with inspiring community based projects in New Delhi, India and then stand in awe as the sun rises over the Taj Mahal. Applications are open September 10-17, 2015. Adults of any age who have experienced any type of cancer and are healthy enough to travel are eligible to apply. If you’re interested in learning more please visit our India program site:  A Fresh Chapter India Odyssey | March 5-19, 2016.

In whatever shape or form volunteering appeals to you, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture and you don’t have to completely reinvent your life. It could be something as simple as calling a friend who is struggling and offering to just listen. It is in these quiet moments of connection that something shifts and we begin to heal.

About Terri: Following treatment for breast cancer, Terri found herself grappling with unexpected feelings of isolation, fear of recurrence, survivor guilt, depression, and anger. Searching for something that would inspire her again, she signed up for a volunteer trip to Africa and the dream for A Fresh Chapter was born.

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