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COVID-19 learning & connection opportunities: week of May 25, 2020

I Have to Ask: Impact of Volunteerism

Posted on May 13, 2019


Sarah Gallimore

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Sarah Gallimore, Senior Design Strategist (Mayor’s Office, Innovation Team), City of Detroit, chronicles how volunteering positively impacted her career.


I may not have started my career out as a civil servant but I believe I’ve always had a servant mindset.

When the ELGL folks first approached me, I was tasked with reflecting on how volunteering has helped me in my day job. Volunteering is generally considered an altruistic activity. It’s when an individual or group provides a service with the primary goal being to benefit another individual or group separate from themselves. I’ve done quite a bit of volunteering in my life but I’ve always had a difficult time with the idea that these activities are entirely (or even mostly) selfless. In many small ways, each choice we make, serves us in some way as well – and that’s perfectly fine in my opinion. We each optimize our daily efforts when we can also serve others at the same time and collectively gain something from that effort that moves the whole ship forward.

In college, I regularly volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and helped build houses for families in Cincinnati. I felt compelled to help the community I was living in but I also really liked being dusty on a construction site, building things with my hands and seeing progress happen on a daily basis. It was a refreshing pace from being stuck behind a computer all day – lost in the creative process sometimes. I also volunteered with an organization called Soldiers Angels and helped boost the morale of men and women overseas by writing letters and putting together thoughtful packages full of things to remind them of home. I felt indebted to these men and women for their sacrifice but I also felt that in helping to keep our service members a bit happier, they were more likely to continue protecting our country and, to be honest, me. Several years later I made an even bigger commitment and “volunteered” to be a military spouse (that’s another fun story all together). Eventually I began to create and coordinate (and volunteer for) my own events and meetups for in both the creative and outdoor communities. I started a totally free, sunrise meetup along the Detroit River and volunteered to be a community engagement committee member for a state-run, 982-acre urban, island park (in the middle of that same river) between Michigan and Ontario.

Each of my volunteer efforts over the years served communities I cared deeply for but they also let me stretch into parts of them I might not otherwise get to in my day job. They let me stretch my skill-sets, my networks, and my comfort zones.

In my “day job” as a design strategist, I’ve worked on everything from high-tech car showrooms and hot-dog business models to improving economic outcomes for returning citizens and strengthening early childhood education. Every new community and environment I work in helps me flex my empathy muscles, build my ability to communicate with different types of individuals and practice new approaches in unique contexts – volunteering is simply another strategy for doing so.

Nothing compares to volunteering to be a parent though. Definitely no financial gain. Definitely put a dent in my social life. Definitely for the benefit of another (tiny but hilarious) person. It’s one giant-all-consuming-humbling-empathy-building-communication-and-prototyping challenge EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I do however, receive a lot of other, often amazing and indescribable, things in return. That experience has pulled me in the direction of my current day job in more ways than one and continues to inspire my decisions about where to volunteer my time next. After reflecting on the unpreparedness I felt for all that came after my daughters birth, I started volunteering with a program that matches soon-to-be-moms with a network of support to improve birth outcomes and infant mortality in the Detroit and I’m applying to become part of Michigan’s Women’s Commission Millennial Advisory Committee.

I refer to myself often as a lateral thinker and committed learner and volunteering lets me do both in some really surprising ways that not only strengthen my own work but help strengthen my ability to lead in communities I care about. In my eyes, true leadership isn’t about being in charge. It’s about taking care of those in your charge – pulling together the right resources to ensure their continued success – whether it’s your employees, client, customer, neighbor, family or planet. The work that continues to be most appealing to me after nearly 14 years in design, is work that serves others in this way. I may not have started my career out as a civil servant but I believe I’ve always had a servant mindset.

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