Substance abuse recovery can be a precarious experience if you aren’t careful about how you spend your time. Too much free time can make it easy to fall back into old habits, but you also don’t want to overwhelm your mind and body with constant work. One valuable option is to spend your time volunteering — and the great news is that there are opportunities no matter your interests!
This guide will help you decide what kind of volunteering opportunities may be right for you based on your schedule and interests. Be sure to consult with your recovery counselor or sponsor before diving into any volunteering projects. Not only will they know of potential opportunities specific to your area, but they can also help you determine an ideal fit that won’t present any undue stress, triggers, or conflicts of interest to your recovery.
If you work a day job and only have time to volunteer in the evenings, spending time serving meals at a soup kitchen might be the right choice for you. It’s a wonderful way to give back to the community, and it can even be a way to make an impact on individuals in need of inspiration. Rebuilding your life after succumbing to addiction is no small feat. Being open about your recovery can not only be therapeutic for you, it could even help others see a light at the end of the tunnel for their own personal battles.
No soup kitchens in your area? Start your own! You can hold events once a week, on weekends, or even just a few times a month. Pinterest has endless possibilities for recipes, and you may be able to work with local food pantries, churches, or community centers to gather donated food and utensils.
If you want to work with the homeless but don’t have the schedule or interest for soup kitchen work, you can volunteer at a local shelter. Responsibilities could include gathering and sorting through donations, helping with community outreach, or even one-on-one work with visitors. Some shelters have career counseling programs where you can help applicants find work opportunities and prepare for job interviews.
No time to devote to visits at the homeless shelter? Gather donations and drop them off when you can. Going through your own belongings can be an excellent way to purge items you no longer need, not to mention any that may bring up painful memories.
Looking to blow off some steam? Help the homeless, get some exercise, and burn off your frustrations all at once! Organizations like Habitat for Humanity give you the opportunity to construct homes from the ground up for families in your community. You can even travel across the world to work on long-term projects in countries throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Manual labor has several benefits for someone in recovery. To start, it releases stress-busting hormones called endorphins. It can give you something tangible to focus on and a better sense of accomplishment once it’s completed: you may not be able to directly see your progress with sobriety, but you’ll certainly be able to measure the progress of the building you’re helping construct. The regular physical exercise can also help you sleep better, making for happier days from start to finish.
The volunteer options for animal lovers are endless! Donate your time to a local shelter or rescue organization, and you’ll likely get to choose the kinds of responsibilities you’ll have and the kinds of animals you’ll work with. You can even foster an animal in your own home to get him out of the shelter until a more permanent solution is found.
And volunteering with animals doesn’t just benefit the critters — it can be rewarding for you physically, mentally, and emotionally! Studies have shown that working with animals can lower your blood pressure and have a calming effect on the body and mind. For someone in recovery, it can be an outlet for socializing without the stress of interpersonal interaction. Animals are nonjudgmental companions you can confide in, take a walk and enjoy nature with, or simply relax with, which can be especially important on overwhelming days.
Volunteering on the adoption side of a shelter or rescue organization can have its own career benefits: it can help build your customer service skills and give you experience working with both animals and people. There’s also something to be said for the joy you feel when you help a deserving animal in need find his forever home.
Volunteering doesn’t have to mean being cooped up inside, so if you love the great outdoors try finding volunteer opportunities with the national park service, the fish and wildlife service, or a state park agency in your area. Recovery is a time to heal your body, and spending time outdoors can boost your vitamin D levels and improve your focus. Plus, you’ll get guaranteed exercise and fresh air, two keys to healthy living no matter your circumstance.
From answering visitor questions to helping maintain park grounds to hosting tours, there are countless ways you can help out at a local park. Depending on your role, you can even expand your education on your state’s local plant and wildlife. If you end up truly enjoying your time there, you may even be able to build connections to find a paying job in the field!
Libraries are an important part of any community, but they can’t function without the help of volunteers. You might sort through book donations, restock shelves, repair torn books, or clean DVDs.
The truth is, there are going to be some tough days in your recovery. The library can be a peaceful place to relax and decompress. You can use the time to re-center after a long day at work, re-focus your priorities if you’re feeling overwhelmed, or even a place to simply silence your mind and indulge in the quiet.
Maybe your local elementary school has a tutoring program, or perhaps your niece just needs a little extra help with her science homework. Whatever the case, tutoring is a great way to help create a brighter future for the next generation.
Becoming a tutor is a great option for someone in recovery because you can make it work around your own schedule. If you want your fresh, sober start to include a new job, you can use tutoring as a way to brush up on your skills. For example, if you want to make sure you’re proficient in algebra before applying for an accounting job, talk to the program director about focusing on students who need help in math. As an added bonus, it can be a major self-esteem boost to help another person learn something you’re already good at. Together you can celebrate victories (like an aced science test) and milestones (like figuring out a complex problem without a calculator), and you’ll be able to proudly say that your expertise helped a student succeed.
One of the wonderful things about recovery is helping others learn from your mistakes. By joining a program like Big Brothers Big Sisters, you can become a strong role model for a child in your community. Your status makes you uniquely qualified: you can talk to your mentee about making smart choices and staying away from dangerous situations, and most of all, how to overcome obstacles and take back your life even when things seem impossible.
Working with children not only allows you to give back to the community, it can really give you some much-needed perspective. Kids have a fairly untainted view of the world, free from personal prejudice and bias. Seeing the world through a child’s eyes can remind you of all the beauty and wonder life has to offer. Plus, spending time with kids also gives you a golden opportunity to kick back and just have some carefree fun — no competition or peer pressure necessary!
If perspective is what you’re looking for in your volunteer work, working with seniors is another great option. It’s pretty tough to see your life as unconquerable when you’re speaking to someone who’s witnessed and survived multiple wars, children, and stock market crashes!
Nursing homes are constantly looking for volunteers to read and play games with residents. If you’re musically inclined, offer to bring your instrument and play a few songs, sing, or even have a (simplified) dance class. More of a storyteller? Bring your favorite works and read aloud a few afternoons a week.
If there aren’t any nearby assisted living facilities or if you’d prefer to form a more personalized senior friendship, find a senior buddy program in your area. Some partner with meal delivery programs to guarantee regular visits, and others you can schedule around your needs.
And don’t just limit yourself to home visits; branch out! Take your senior buddy on trips to the park or out to lunch. Drive through her old stomping grounds to hear about how the neighborhood has changed and how things used to be. Get your nails done together or head to the barber shop for a trim. Try new things together — create lists of things you’ve never done, then trade off checking items off the list. The great thing about this kind of volunteering is that it really isn’t work at all!
Whether it’s a hotline for suicide prevention, addiction, or teen crisis, volunteering at a local call center gives you the opportunity to make an important impact on the life of a stranger in need.
As with mentoring, your recovery status gives you a unique perspective and, in many instances, could make you the best possible person to consult. You’ve learned not only what it’s like to hit rock bottom, but how to bounce back. Being able to relate to someone in such an important way can make all the difference when they’re trying to cope with a seemingly impossible and truly devastating situation. It can also be therapeutic to talk about your recovery without the pressure of talking to someone who actually knows you.
Be an addiction advocate! Talk to local churches and community centers about sharing your experience through public speaking events, or even visiting schools as part of anti-drug programs.
Rehab centers are also always looking for volunteers to work with patients in treatment. You can serve not only as a role model, but someone who truly understands the struggle they’re facing. Just be sure to never put someone else’s sobriety ahead of your own, and contact your sponsor immediately if you feel like you may be starting to slip.
Volunteering while you’re coping with recovery can be a wonderful way to keep yourself busy in a rewarding and productive way. If you get overwhelmed with the time commitment, cut back to be sure you don’t sidetrack your own sobriety and wellbeing. Remember: however you choose to donate your time, every little bit counts and no impact is too small!