Jenkins/Penn Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO)

Sean Penn Haiti Volunteer

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When a 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti in early 2010, it seemed like the entire world turned its eyes to the poverty-stricken Caribbean nation – and Sean Penn was no exception. In the wake of the disaster, which virtually leveled the tiny country, Penn and fellow philanthropist Diana Jenkins sprung into action and formed the Jenkins/Penn Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO).

Unlike some other celebrity-based charity organizations, the J/P HRO and its namesakes were not only at ground zero immediately following the disaster but, nearly three years later, are still actively involved. Sean Penn’s volunteerism through the J/P HRO is, in fact, so lauded that he was recently named ambassador at large for Haiti.

“Soft Power”: Volunteering for National Security

Peace Corps Volunteers

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Back in 2006, the Brookings Institute published a paper by Lex Rieffel entitled, “International Volunteering: Smart Power.” In the paper, Rieffel discusses the many ways that volunteering efforts improve international relations without big overtures, huge expenditures of taxpayer money, or military involvement. Volunteering is a grassroots citizen-lead peace initiative. Rieffel writes: “The face of America that has been welcomed most enthusiastically in the rest of the world for decades has been the face of a volunteer: assisting with disaster relief, building houses for poor families, teaching English to university students, and so much more.”

Nana’s Story: Making a Difference at 80

Foster Grandmother Maxine Romm

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A few weeks ago, my nana turned 84. She is incredible: bright, chipper, happy, and sharp as a tack. She may be a little more hunched over than she used to be. Her eyes aren’t as good and her hearing is starting to go, but in every way that matters my nana is still the very same person who held me when I was a baby. I really think one of the reasons she has managed to age so gracefully is her lifelong dedication to volunteering. She is Catholic and is very devout. Her whole life she has been volunteering at her church, giving back to the community in every way that she can. She has run food drives, collected clothing for shelters, raised money for shelter animals, and helped care for the community’s children. She has always been an integral part of life in her corner of New Jersey.

Ken Budd: Living a Life that Matters

Ken Budd with School Children in Ecuador

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Why do we volunteer? We want to help. We want to leave the world in a better place than we found it. We want to matter. Sometimes, we want to heal. I’ve explored the many ways volunteering helps teach a person to be a global citizen, and the many ways it enriches the spirit: helping others, seeing your work improve lives, seeing yourself through the eyes of people from vastly different worlds, feeling the connection we all share. But I haven’t explored how we can use volunteering to find ourselves—to put our pain and suffering in perspective, to get outside our own heads, and to process grief.