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Volunteering Made Easy: Three Ways to Use Your Passions and Skills for Good

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I know that volunteering and a recession seem to make about as much sense as peanut butter and pickles (sorry Elvis), but this tenuous economic environment is the perfect time to get involved in volunteer work.

Did You Know?
According to a recent American College of Surgeons survey:
 • 92% of residents surveyed said they would like to train internationally
 • 54% said they’d trade vacation time to train abroad

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, there has been a recent surge in volunteerism, most likely due to people rallying to support those they see struggling around them. Additionally, with the high number of layoffs in recent months, many people are looking for activities to fill their days while looking for a job. I have one friend who is doing just that. After being laid off in January, she now spends two to three days a week helping Spanish-speaking people in her community polish their resumes.

If you have considered volunteering or have done so in the past, now is a great time to get involved. And there are so many options for young ophthalmologists. No matter what your interests or specialty, there are programs that need your help at the local, national and international level. Let’s look at each of these opportunities in more detail.

Give Locally
One terrific way to give back is to work directly in your community. Best of all, you can choose to volunteer in a medical capacity or in another area of interest.

Academy President Michael W. Brennan, MD, is a strong advocate of volunteering within your own community. “Volunteering should be an integral, frequent part of our profession,” says Dr. Brennan. “Doctors have a lot to offer beyond the scope of medicine.”

When choosing where in your community to focus your efforts, Dr. Brennan suggests asking yourself what interests you. Is it athletics? Then coaching could be ideal for you. Do you thrive on the business side of medicine? Then maybe the Chamber of Commerce is your calling. Whatever you decide, make sure you do it for the right reason.

As Dr. Brennan explains, volunteering means giving without expecting anything in return. To truly volunteer, you put service before self. One great test of this is if you volunteer in an area of discomfort or one that feels awkward, you are likely doing it for the wrong reason and it will become a “need to” rather than a “want to.”

Dr. Brennan's Core Principles of Volunteering

Principle #1: Be genuine, authentic and respectful. It is critical that you show appreciation for the existing representatives of the organization you are joining and realize that they are the experts in this particular arena, not you.

Principle #2: Be resourceful. One-man shows seldom win campaigns. You must be willing to start as a teammate, and listen and learn. By doing this, you can form alliances and partnerships, which is when the real volunteer work begins. The partnerships can be one-on-one, mentor roles, as well as larger alliances. The key is to let it be about the group purpose and not simply about your name being on some volunteer list.

Principle #3: Exhibit leadership. In many organizations, there is a lot of intention, but little accomplishment, often due to a lack of leadership. As doctors, we frequently command prestige and credibility simply due to our education and degree. This can help us work to “get the job done.” To exhibit this leadership, you must make an enduring commitment. Volunteering is not a one-night stand.

It’s surprisingly important that you follow these principles in relative order. You need to first gain trust and respect. Don’t over-promise and say you can do more or accomplish more than is realistic. Be a real person. Then, through resourcefulness and alliances, you can deliver on your promises. It is this combination of under-promising and over-delivering that will set you up to be seen as a leader.

If you would like to volunteer in an arena that uses your medical degree, Dr. Brennan suggests thinking beyond ophthalmology. “You can work with any basic medical group, not just ophthalmology, and not strictly in clinical medicine,” he says. “There are lots of volunteer opportunities that need the skills of a general, primary care physician. Of course, you can always offer your ophthalmic medical and surgical training as well.”

Think Nationally
One great way to combine community service with a national program is to get involved with one (or all) of the programs offered through EyeCare America, the public service program of the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. As Betty Lucas, director of EyeCare America, explains, becoming a volunteer for EyeCare America provides an opportunity for ophthalmologists to give back to their communities without leaving their office. EyeCare America also makes volunteering easy by limiting the number of patients referred to each physician (no more than 15 per year, or about one every three to four weeks).

First Person
John P. Berdahl, MD, on volunteering with EyeCare America

For ophthalmologists just starting out, volunteering for EyeCare America is even more of an opportunity to make a difference while also building a practice. “Volunteers are encouraged to become spokespersons who speak to the press or sometimes send template letters to their local newspapers to let the community know about EyeCare America and the great work they are doing as a volunteer,” Lucas says. “They receive certificates to display in each of their offices where patients will see their public service efforts.”

Patients themselves often spread the word as well. “The patients’ families are often so grateful for the service provided that they tell others in their community about the great work they are doing,” Lucas says. “But these are just a few of the rewards. The biggest one is the warm feeling of giving back to those less fortunate.”

EyeCare America has five programs that all need and welcome volunteers: 

To enroll as an EyeCare America volunteer, call 877.887.6327 any time between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. PST Monday through Friday, send an email to pubserv@aao.org, enroll online or download the application form (PDF 35K). And remember that volunteering for EyeCare America helps your community, helps your practice, and helps your profession.

Act Globally
If you seek a bit of adventure and savor thinking on your feet, then volunteering abroad may be for you. And you can thank Brad Feldman, MD, for your ability to do so as a resident.

As Dr. Feldman explained, he had a very difficult time during his residency finding long-term volunteer opportunities, something he could do over the course of his career. “I ran into a lot of barriers,” he says. “I called non-governmental organizations to see what was available to a resident or fellow looking to work abroad. As it turned out, the answer was nothing. Everyone I talked to told me they needed doctors with five to 10 years of experience. I even called U.S.-based programs that support international eye care programs and offered to come volunteer in any capacity, and they even said ‘no thanks.’”

But Dr. Feldman didn’t give up. He contacted a friend from medical school who worked in public health and knew someone who had worked abroad with an ophthalmologist — Linda Lawrence, MD, one of the Academy’s 2009 Outstanding Humanitarian Service Award recipients. When he got in touch with Dr. Lawrence, she agreed to not only meet with him but to also take him on her next project.

They met up at that year’s Academy annual meeting and sat down with about 12 other residents to discuss ways residents could help abroad and establish a long-term relationship with programs and other doctors abroad. The emphasis was not about going on a short-term trip and being the “hero.” It was their long-term goal to help communities and local doctors build a sustainable system of eye care, getting supplies, teaching techniques, etc.

At Dr. Lawrence’s suggestion, the group got in touch with ORBIS, a global non-profit devoted to eliminating blindness in developing countries, and worked with them to change ORBIS’ policy from only taking doctors with five or more years of experience to actively recruiting residents and fellows. In this capacity, the residents could focus on the education of local doctors, the screening of surgical patients, and clinical exams rather than simply surgery.

In addition to Dr. Lawrence, ORBIS’ medical director Hunter Cherwek, MD, has been a huge proponent of bringing younger doctors on board. As the leader of ORBIS missions abroad, he emphasizes the idea of long-term commitments and education, rather than promoting the idea of “medical tourism.”

But Dr. Feldman didn’t stop with ORBIS. In order to increase awareness of programs now willing to work with residents and fellows, he worked with Drs. Lawrence and Cherwek (as well as others, including Dr. Brennan and last year’s humanitarian award recipient Devin Harrison, MD) to create a course at the Annual Meeting, titled “Young Ophthalmologists in International Ophthalmology.” “This will be our third year, not only of holding the course, but also hosting a reception immediately following,” says Dr. Feldman. “The reception is a great networking event for people to connect with groups that are working abroad, including Unite for Sight, SEE and Christian Blind Mission, as well as ORBIS.”

Dr. Feldman is quick to note that none of this would have been possible without the guidance and support of Dr. Lawrence. “It impressed upon me the importance of having a mentor to guide you through this really complicated endeavor,” he says. “You need to find someone who is doing what you want to do and ask them to walk you through it.”

Another good international volunteer resource is the Academy-driven Eye Care Volunteer Registry. When you choose the geographic area you want to work in, the registry tells you what organizations meet the criteria you are looking for. Then you take over and look into the organization on your own.

When it comes to volunteering overseas, Dr. Brennan also suggests that you try to think outside of the box. Where can your talents (not just medical) be of the most service? Perhaps you would offer the most service by teaching, acting as a liaison with the Ministry of Health or working with local doctors to sustain treatment and follow-up care.

And don’t forget that ophthalmology is part of the family of medicine. “You can offer your medical talents in areas of public health, pediatrics, ob/gyn, and even mental health,” says Dr. Brennan. “The key is to remember that you are there to help … in whatever form that help is needed.”

Summary
During these difficult economic times, volunteering is more important than ever. Whether you give of your time and services within your community, enroll as an EyeCare America volunteer or commit to working with people in need overseas, your talents and gifts can change lives. By so doing, you can not only give the gift of sight, but the gift of hope and gratitude as well.

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About the author: Kimberly Day is a freelance health writer and medical editor and a frequent contributor to YO Info. She is the co-author of Hormone Revolution and ghost writer of Eat Papayas Naked.