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  • Writer's pictureShanghai Expat Association

Share the Love (and your skills) through volunteering

Updated: Jun 5, 2019

By Lori Ozdowy

With organizations that depend on volunteer participation-like the Shanghai Expat Association, Brits Abroad Shanghai (BA), American Club Shanghai (ACS), Heart to Heart Shanghai (H2H), Lifeline, and the list goes on-it makes a person wonder: how do they find people who are willing to work—for free?

Expats in Shanghai, especially non-working spouses, can find time on their hands that they may not have had before moving overseas. How do they become involved in doing something that is a good use of their time and skills?

According to Sharon McIntosh, BA Shanghai Secretary and a distributor for SEA, “I found BA online via a search engine and joined two weeks after arriving. I’ve never looked back as it was the best thing I could have done. Then I was introduced to SEA by BA members and signed up shortly after.” Barb Saylor volunteers for both SEA (on three different committees) and ACS. She used her social network to discover what was available. “I found ACS through a friend that had lived in Shanghai as an expat in the past. I sent the organization an email and then joined my first ACS coffee morning a few days later. Through them, I learned about SEA.”

Kerry, who volunteers in the playroom (as well as other roles) at H2H used a third method, casual word-of-mouth. “I was chatting to a fellow Australian about the field trips she had been on with H2H. She was able to relay plenty of amusing, interesting, and heart-warming stories about the children, the families, and the other volunteers at H2H. It sounded like an organization that I would like to be a part of.”

Kerry Guthrie-Heart to Heart Shanghai volunteer on her first trip, Hunan Province, 2017

Angela Ramirez, ACS president, who also volunteers for SEA, and occasionally at her children’s school, had a similar experience to Sharon, finding both SEA and ACS online, and then met them in person at the Shanghai Expat Show. Anja Beer coordinates events for SEA. She found both the German Club and SEA online and received a recommendation from a friend.

Angela Ramirez-President of American Club Shanghai

After finding social groups, what makes one want to devote time to volunteering? According to the London School of Economics, there is a happiness effect involved. Their 2008 study showed that feeling “very happy” increased by 7% among people who volunteered every month (as compared to those who never volunteered). Volunteering every two to four weeks increased this feeling by 12% and for those who volunteered every week, 16%.

Barbara Saylor-Membership Co-Chair, Shanghai Expat Association

Every expat has their own reasons for volunteering but there seem to be similar threads. For both Barb and Kerry, their volunteer roles are a continuation of the lives they had before moving to Shanghai. “Our family started our expat journey 20 years ago, and I have found volunteering to be the best way to meet people,” said Kerry. For others, it’s a matter of changing out a paying career for something as fulfilling, but without the paycheck." After giving up a job in teaching I felt I needed another purpose. I like to organize and feel needed, so being a volunteer gave me this,” explained Sharon. One of the motivations, offered by both Angela and Anja, is the opportunity to give back to the community, ensuring that the programs they enjoyed when they arrived can continue. All the volunteers emphasized the friends and support networks that developed in their volunteer roles. “It opens up the possibility to find people—even make new friends—who share the same interests,” said Anja.

Anja Beer-Event Coordinator, Shanghai Expat Association

Volunteering has health benefits as well. As stated in a website post at, “According to a study by Rodlescia Sneed and Sheldon Cohen, published in the Psychology and Aging Journal, there might be a physical reason behind this benefit. Apparently, volunteering is capable of lowering blood pressure. The study found that those who practice volunteering activities for around 200 hours a year are likely to have lower blood pressure. (Some other studies have placed this number at around 100 hours.) This means volunteering is not only the best secret to good mental health¾it’s a secret to some aspects of physical health, too!”

While we think of a job as nine-to-five or a 40-hour workweek, volunteer positions can be more flexible. “It might be around 25 hours per month to organize the walks for several vendors, including the correspondence and coordinating the walk on the day,” said Anja. “I have to admit that being a Secretary takes up quite a bit of my time but that’s my own fault,” Sharon explains. “The job role actually does not need it to be so, but it’s my need to be involved in other areas that has made it that way. I am a perfectionist and just like to help with all I can.” A benefit of volunteering can be learning better time management skills. “It really isn’t time consuming at all. I just fit it into my day. I find that I do volunteer things throughout the day while at different events or when at home checking emails,” said Barb.

To those who worry about taking that first step, Angela suggests, “There are many opportunities to volunteer in Shanghai, whether it’s through schools, social clubs, or charitable organizations. It is scary to sign up for something the first time. The key thing to remember is everyone was new once. We have that in common. And everyone, in whatever activity you choose, wants you to succeed.”

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” states Martin Luther King, Jr. Kerry offers some detailed suggestions to other expats. “Do some research on the organizations that have volunteering opportunities and find the one that best suits you. Deciding on the 'best suit' depends on your personal circumstances, but visiting the organization and seeing things in action is a good start. Should you find an organization that you connect with, for yourself and the organization to get the most out of the volunteering, try to make it a regular commitment. Volunteering is very flexible but for organizations who rely on volunteers to get stuff done, knowing there is a regular commitment involved is beneficial.” Angela adds: “Get involved! Think about things you enjoy doing, things you would like to explore, and things you are good at. Then look for activities that fit. You don’t have to recreate the wheel! There are so many organizations here that will guide you as you get involved.” Anja, Barb, and Sharon had similar advice. Barb recommends that people “volunteer and become involved. You get to know lots of new people from all around the world, I feel truly blessed.”


About the author: Lori Ozdowy is a long-time expatriate, with over 14 years spent living overseas. She is an active member of SEA and attempts to make the most of their many events, trips, and volunteer opportunities.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

— Mahatma Gandhi

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.” – Elizabeth Andrew

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” — William Shakespeare

Original Courier publish date: May, 2019

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