The benefits of working as a volunteer

WHENEVER it's campaign time, Debra Romash is right in her element - promoting worker awareness, conducting polls, and organizing benefits. Since graduating from college six years ago, where she majored in international politics, Ms. Romash has spent much of her free time doing volunteer work as a political activist.

''My father and I always enjoyed talking politics,'' she says. ''When I was young we used to sit down with the New York Times and watch the evening news together.''

Today, ''My voluntary work is totally an extension of my personal interests. A lot of my friends are involved as well,'' says Ms. Romash, who is an investment adviser with a New York City stock brokerage firm. ''It's hard for me to estimate the number of hours I spend on it because my personal life and volunteer work overlap a lot. During campaign time I can honestly say it never stops.''

In the past, Ms. Romash has worked for various political campaigns, including the George Bush for President campaign in 1979. She currently works with the New York State Republican Committee. She also does volunteer fund raising for the Central Park Conservancy and organized a gala benefit for Tune-In New York, an organization that refers volunteers to some 5,000 groups in New York City needing assistance.

''Volunteer work is really infectious,'' says Ms. Romash. ''It's a wonderful way to meet people of all ages and backgrounds. You usually don't get that from your job.''

Today more than half of all women and more than half of all wives are in the paid work force. Many young career women put in long hours to succeed in their field, and mothers who work must juggle job and family responsibilities. Yet many still find time to fit volunteer work into already demanding schedules. After a dip in membership during the 1970s, women's voluntary organizations report a strong resurgence in interest and membership.

From helping elderly neighbors to lobbying for environmental causes, the opportunities for voluntary service are virtually unlimited.

''It's distressing to me to see people my age who have no interests beyond themselves,'' says Ms. Romash. ''There's a lot going on out there, and if you don't have children and don't need to keep your apartment in tiptop shape, you should get out there and do something.''

Wendy Kamir, author of ''Women Volunteering'' (Doubleday & Co., New York), sees volunteering as ''an extra-domestic job for those women who do not work outside the home for money and as a community connection for those who do.'' According to Ms. Kamir, the predominant image of volunteering that has evolved in the past few years is ''good neighboring seasoned with a little good career strategy.''

Young women who volunteer today, she observes, are more likely to see the activity as a supplement to their career and family life rather than as a substitute for a paid job. At the same time, volunteering is still associated with middle-class housewives whose husbands support them. Full-time volunteer work seems to be at odds with the emerging ideal of women as paid professionals.

''It takes a strong woman to be a successful volunteer,'' writes Ms. Kamir. ''One who doesn't need a job to know how to use her time productively or a paycheck as a measure of her worth; one who can afford to be proud of serving her community for free.''

While many women may no longer choose or have the option to be full-time volunteers, some women pursue volunteer work as a balance for their professional lives.

Phyllis Goodfriend, an office manager for a temporary employment service, sought volunteer work doing research ''because my job is very on-the-minute. A lot of my work is putting out brush fires when something is wrong or doing something that has to be done immediately. Research work enabled me to do something in depth.''

Through Tune-In New York, she found a position assisting an author who was writing a book on fund raising for nonprofit organizations. She used her lunch hours to arrange interviews and did further research at night. Now she types manuscripts and gives feedback on completed copy.

Since her children are grown, Ms. Goodfriend says she has plenty of time for volunteer work. She has also contributed her services to Planned Parenthood and has tutored foreign students in English.

''My day is over when my job is over,'' she says. ''I can do volunteer work for an hour or two and still have a full evening.''

Volunteering is a natural way to satisfy personal interests while benefiting others.

For more than 20 years Nancy Deutsch of Northbrook, Ill., has participated in the Chicago Art Institute docent program giving tours to elementary and high school students. Mrs. Deutsch majored in chemistry during college but always loved art history.

When her family moved from Connecticut to the Chicago area, she decided to interview for a docent position at the Art Institute. Applicants are carefully screened for the program, are required to submit papers on various topics, and must maintain high standards in their work.

''The demanding quality of it is what appealed to me,'' she says. ''It wasn't just a dilettante sort of thing. It's the only volunteer program I know of where you can be fired.''

Over the years Mrs. Deutsch has found it ''tremendously satisfying'' to help children gain insights into the art world. She used to give about 30 tours a year while her two children were growing up, but now that she works full time she has cut back to about 18 tours a year.

Mrs. Deutsch also found that the communication and research skills she developed as a docent carried over into her present professional position as an editor and writer for a newsletter on pollution control technology.

''I had been told the talents you pick up in volunteer work can be useful,'' she says. ''I never believed it, but it is true.''


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