Giving back

By volunteering, you can give back to your community, inspire a future engineer or scientist, and learn about yourself.


Amara RozgusWhen I was 15, my mom told me to get a job; essentially, she wanted me out of the house and doing something productive. In most states, as it is in Illinois, you cannot work until you are 16 years old, so I figured I had it made. I wouldn’t have to work for another year and I could spend my summer and weekends being a lazy teenager. I smugly reminded my mother that I wasn’t old enough. Her response: “Well, then I guess you’ll just have to volunteer.”

My plan had failed. Little did I know, however, that this push would set me on a lifelong journey of volunteering and giving back to my community.

My first volunteer position was as a candy striper (please hold your laughter and jokes). I spent many hours volunteering at a local hospital after school and on weekends. Because I also needed volunteer hours to graduate from high school, this served a quadruple purpose: I was pacifying my mother, earning the much-needed hours for school, confirming that I wanted to somehow be involved in science, and learning about working with people.

The high school I attended had (what I thought at the time was) a crazy motto: Men and women for others. In addition to my time volunteering at the hospital (“discharge” was best—everyone is always happy to leave a hospital), I put the motto into action: I started tutoring inner-city kids, working at animal shelters, and doing a variety of other volunteer tasks.

Fast-forward a few years and here I am today. I spend at least 60 hours each year volunteering as a University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Master Gardener, countless hours (hundreds?) helping run programs at the Norwood Park Historical Society (Chicago’s Oldest Home), and several other 1-hour or 1-day opportunities. I’ve become a volunteer junkie.

The best part of all of this is that I’ve learned a few things:

  • In working with children through the Master Gardener program, I’m able to help them find the fascination in science that I found as a youngster. It’s great to see their faces light up as we learn together about plants, insects, and urban gardening.
  • Volunteering has introduced me to new opportunities and challenges I never dreamed of. I didn’t know I could fund-raise, for example. Now I know that many businesses and individuals are generous, and often are happy to help if you ask the right way.
  • Giving back to the community is a real eye-opener because I often help people who haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had. Serving food with a smile and direct eye contact at a soup kitchen is the only affirmation that some homeless people get—they’re often harassed, chastised, or worse yet, simply ignored.

In a related story, Rebecca Delaney discusses her volunteer work on a deeper and more dedicated level. While you might not be able to travel as she has, you can certainly give back to your community and share your engineering and building expertise in many ways. Some suggestions:

Share your volunteer stories with me at or when we next meet. I’ll be at the Critical Facilities Summit at the end of September, and at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in October. 

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