When her second child was born, Gina Long reached her personal tipping point. Though she loved her job as a paralegal, it was stressful and demanded long hours. So with both regret and relief, she signed on for the title of Stay-at-Home Mom (SAHM). But that didn't mean an end to her working life. In between carpools and playdates, she volunteered for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, where her first task was working on a "Cookies with Santa" fund-raiser. Long's success led to bigger projects. In 2005 she chaired the hospital's "Festival of Trees," a holiday event that raises about $1 million each year. She did such a good job last year that the hospital hired Long, who'd been a stay-at-home mom for 13 years, to be the festival's full-time executive director.
"I started volunteering because I was so glad we had such a great hospital in our community," Long says. "But I found out I had a passion for this kind of work."
Long discovered that volunteering is a great way to get a big return on a little spare time. You set your own hours, pick your own responsibilities, and pitch in for a cause that you care about. But at the same time, you can give your own future career a leg up. According to the 2005 Volunteer Impact survey by Deloitte and Touche, a professional-services firm, nearly three-quarters of Americans volunteer in their communities, and 86 percent think that it has a positive impact on their professional life.
Employers agree. "There's a direct connection between volunteering and skill development," says Evan Hochberg, Deloitte's national director of community involvement. "When you learn public relations, marketing, or technical skills through a volunteer job, you're gaining real experience. Employers won't discount it just because your work is unpaid."
If you've taken a break from your job to be with your kids, you may already be pitching in for some worthy causes. But to turn your effort into an advantage when you're ready to reenter the workforce, you have to think strategically.
If you're planning to go back into the same field, look for opportunities that will keep you in play. For example, if you're an accountant, offer to write the financial plan for the community theater; if your background is administrative, help organize your town's soccer league. Tammy Forster, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, left her job as a first-grade teacher when her daughter Emma was born in 1993. But she became a familiar face around school a few years down the road, helping out with everything from spelling bees to field trips. Volunteering in the classroom gave her the opportunity to keep up with educational trends and made the gap on her resume seem smaller. Forster believes that if she hadn't kept herself in the action, she would never have landed the part-time job she eventually got -- leading professional-development courses for teachers.
Thinking about going in a different direction? "Volunteering is a great, low-stakes way to test the waters," says Margot Carmichael Lester, author of The Real Life Guide to Starting Your Career. "You can get a feel for the work involved, but if it's not for you, there's no shame in walking away once the project is done." So experiment: If you that think you'd like to work with kids, sign up to be a class parent; if you've always dreamed of becoming a journalist, write stories for your kids' school newsletter; if you're the artistic type, offer to design the preschool yearbook; and if you have computer skills, step forward to set up a Web site for your community.
Just as in the business world, you've got to pay your dues. Go ahead and start off stuffing envelopes, but set your sights on a leadership role. Amanda Albertelli, of Atlanta, began by working the bake sales at her daughter Courtney's school. Within a few years, she was chairing the fund-raising auction, raising more than $75,000 annually. By the time her daughter was in middle school, Albertelli was in charge of the school's capital campaign. When she started interviewing for a full-time job, her experience paid off big-time. "I was so impressed with her leadership qualities that I hired her as a community-relations manager over other candidates who'd worked for large corporations," says Mark Scott, vice president for marketing at HomeBanc, one of the largest mortgage lenders in the Southeast.
You may not get a paycheck, but you should still act as if you do. People in your organization are depending on you to do the job you've signed up for, so show up when you're expected and work efficiently and professionally. "The most important thing for me as a volunteer was managing all my projects," says Albertelli. "I made plans for everything that had to be done, set deadlines, and created checklists that went right up on my refrigerator. I really learned a lot about time management and self-motivation." Don't flake out on your commitments or take on more than you can manage. Before agreeing to do something, be up front about any restrictions on your time. "I'd love to run the auction this year, but my husband travels a lot, so if you can deal with my schedule, sign me up!"
Ever since her two sons were small, Vicki Gingrich, of Annville, Pennsylvania, has done a lot of volunteer work, from tutoring first-graders to refereeing swim meets. Not surprisingly, she got to know just about everyone in town along the way. When the position of youth director at the local library opened up, Gingrich was recruited by a board member who had worked with her on other projects and thought she?d be just the right person for the job.
Okay, so the truth of the matter is that most of us aren't going to be as lucky as Gingrich. But when you're ready to begin a job search, the people you worked with over the years of volunteering are going to be a vital tool. They'll be able to tip you off to job leads, connect you with people they know in the field you're pursuing, and give you references. So, even if you're years away from going back to work, start saving those phone numbers and e-mail addresses now. Also, write a little note by each person's name to remind you of the work you did together. Though the silent-auction team you led for the preschool seems forever etched in your mind today, five years from now your cohorts may be a dim memory.
Be prepared to impress potential employers by keeping track of all your volunteer accomplishments. "I kept files of all my projects," says Cecilia Green, a Chicago mom of three. "I had the PTA newsletter that reported a doubling of membership when I was president, a marketing plan I wrote for a theater group, and band-booster articles with my byline. When I was ready to look for a job, it was pretty easy to pull together a portfolio." On the strength of her volunteer experience, Green landed an entry-level position with an advertising agency. Even if you don't show a future employer what you produced over the years, it's still worth keeping a file so when it comes time to create a resume you'll be able to give a rich picture of what you've been doing. It will also be a great confidence booster to know how much you accomplished as a SAHM.
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Parents magazine.
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