The Volunteer’s Guide to Self-Care

Now that the spring semester is finally in full swing, it is only a matter of weeks before vans packed with University of Delaware students head off around the country to engage in meaningful service during their spring breaks. I don’t think I am alone when I say that the experiences people have on these trips are life changing. However, it is not uncommon to end up like me and forget to practice self-care during your week volunteering.

Losing Balance

My first community service trip took place in high school when my innocent fifteen-year-old-self decided to sign up for a church-based trip to work with a family and repair their home in Appalachia. Weeks later I found myself nailing purlins in place on an elderly woman’s roof in Letcher County, Kentucky. It was day three. The air was humid and hot. I had been on the roof for about an hour, being handed more purlins to nail into the wooden planks of the roof. I was exhausted and I knew I needed water, but I did not want to ask for something for myself. That would be selfish on a community service trip, right? Moments later I lost my balance and slid off the wooden planks of the roof onto the porch below. Thankfully, my ego took the biggest hit when I fell to the ground, but I was slightly bruised from the fall.

Of course, the commotion that ensued after the incident far surpassed the slight delay in productivity that me taking a break would have caused. The whole team stopped working to check on me, get me water, and clean up my bruises. They forbade me from working on the roof for the rest of the day. To this day, I wish I had realized that my well-being was important to the completion of the project and that I needed to take care of myself before I could take on building a roof!

Again, this scenario is not all that unheard of. Sometimes it is challenging to balance your personal needs with the demands of your service project. Truth be told, you cannot effectively engage in service without properly taking care of yourself.

A dry-erase board that states "Reasons why I UDAB? To Learn from a community and help it grow."

University of Delaware Alternative Breaks is just four weeks away from sending out 23 spring community service programs this spring break.

Tip 1: Advocate for Yourself

My number one tip to avoid ending up sick, injured, or burnt-out on your service trip is to be your own self-advocate. Speak up! Depending on where you are working, you may need different things to stay healthy. On a physically demanding work site, you need to make sure that you are getting enough water and breaks. On an emotionally demanding service trip, you may need to set your alarm early to journal and process your thoughts alone to ensure your own mental stability.

Tip 2: Fuel Your Body

Another critical component is nutrition. Try to not let yourself get so burnt out that you forget about your dietary needs. Lack of adequate nutrition is one sure-fire way to put yourself at risk for infection or sickness. Remember, you being tired or sick does not benefit the community you are working with, so it is important to listen to your body and make sure to nurture it properly.

Tip 3: Give Yourself Permission

After the fall on my first service trip, one of my leaders gave me this powerful piece of : “You have permission to check out when you need.” This statement validated my need to grab some water and get out of the blistering sun for a few moments. It also empowered me to tap other people out who may have been struggling or overextending themselves. Try suggesting switching roles with someone who might need a break, or simply ask them how they are doing.

What might surprise you is that these small steps in self-care can really rejuvenate you and bring a new appreciation to the service you are working on. Believe it or not, YOU are also a part of the community and you are as important as the project you are working on.

By Samantha Leonard, Community Engagement Ambassador and junior human services major from Robbinsville, N.J. Samantha spends her time on campus serving with UD Alternative Break, Sexual Offense Support, and Greek life.