I know, I know. You don’t want to hear another mental health tip. You’ve tried yoga, breathing exercises, running, etc. Nothing really quite seems to help. But, have you ever tried volunteering? Studies have shown that volunteering can aid in such things as reducing your risk of depression, reducing stress levels, and even lower blood pressure. I’m more interested in how it can help with the two former concepts, because let me tell you, volunteering has certainly aided in reducing my stress levels and helped me through some rough depressive times.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when my mental health journey began. I was probably dealing with depression and anxiety longer than I admitted to myself. However, during my third year in my undergraduate career, I recognized I needed help. I was struggling to get out of bed, wasn't paying attention in classes, and some of my friendships were failing. Luckily, I had support in my family and partner and began taking medication and attending group counseling. I made it through my final year of undergrad relatively unscathed and moved to Madison to work and be with my partner.
Living in Madison, I didn't have quite the same support network I had in undergrad. While my mental health was still improving, I felt like something was missing. That's when I realized how much I missed volunteering. I had done a lot of volunteering in high school and absolutely loved it, but fell out of it during my time in undergrad. So, I began looking into what opportunities were available in Madison. Growing up as an animal lover, I was instantly drawn to the opportunities I learned were available to me at Henry Vilas Zoo. I filled out my application, completed the orientation, and began volunteering as a Discovery Docent. I stood outside the polar bear exhibit with the cart of “biofacts” and taught anyone who would listen about polar bears. I had so much fun volunteering, that I couldn’t help but become more and more involved.
In 2018, I began volunteering as an Animal Handling Docent and became more involved with the Education Department at the zoo. As an Animal Handling Docent, I learned to work with the education animals used for bleacher and “Zoo to You” programs. As part of the education department, I also served as a sleepover instructor and aided with zoo camps, serving as an instructor for some of those as well. I expanded my creativity, taking the lesson plans developed for these programs and making them my own. I learned I could indeed work well with children, something I was convinced I never actually would do. At conservation awareness days organized by the education department, I sold crafts we made from old poaching snares as part of a crafting for conservation program started at Henry Vilas Zoo. Throughout the year, I really began to feel as though I had found a home in the education department of the zoo.
This became even more important in 2019. That year was a rough one for me. My partner of five years and I split, having realized we weren’t the most compatible and wanted different things out of life. At the time, I didn’t really have friends of my own in Madison, making the split harder to deal with as I felt like I no longer had a solid support network immediately available. I was also rejected from the graduate program I applied to, which was a huge hit to my ego. Grad school was something I had always wanted to do, and having been rejected, I no longer knew what to do with myself. I spent a lot of time hunkered down in my apartment, feeling miserable for myself. Luckily, in the spring, the zoo inadvertently came to my rescue.
Changes were brewing at Henry Vilas Zoo and I was offered the opportunity to step in and help. I dove in headfirst, working to edit some of the materials used to train in new volunteers, assisting with some administrative tasks, and coordinating the summer teen program, among the other volunteer tasks I was already doing. These opportunities gave me something to look forward to, something I thoroughly loved doing, and helped pull me out of my slump. Being a part of the education department also showed me I am more interested in a career in outreach and science education, ideally in a zoo setting. Through volunteering, I learned more about who I am and what truly makes me happy.
If you find yourself struggling, I cannot encourage you enough to begin volunteering. Find an organization whose mission you believe in and get involved. Volunteering is a fantastic way to explore your passions while making new friends, developing skills, and lowering your risk of depression and your stress levels. I cannot thank everyone who has accompanied me on my volunteering journey these last few years enough. I will forever be grateful for the opportunities I have had and the friends I have made. I’m not sure where I would be without Henry Vilas Zoo.