What Volunteering at a NICU Has Taught Me About Giving Back and Being Thankful

My son spent a month in a NICU after he was born, and I made a silent promise to the universe that one day I'd do my best to give something back to these people.
Publish date:
November 22, 2012
volunteering, Thanksgiving

This summer, I was looking for a way to give back, preferably to a community that I love, when it dawned on me that at least one of the hospitals in my city likely had a volunteer program. Of course, they all do: Hospitals love volunteers.

I inquired with the hospital of my choice, filled out my info, and noted on the application that I was especially interested in either offering my services as a photographer or in the NICU. While I'm sure taking photos of children and their family at the hospital would be an awesome thing to do, I had fingers and toes crossed that I'd get the NICU spot.

My son spent a month in a NICU after he was born -- a month filled with numerous ups and downs. We got to know many of the nurses pretty well by the end of his time there, and I made a silent promise to the universe that one day I'd do my best to give something back to these people who placed so much importance in his health and well-being. I wasn't sure what I would do, exactly, but I knew I would eventually try.

It took me three-and-a-half years, but I've finally followed through on my promise. I spend four hours each week tucked away in a quiet, sweet corner of the world, helping out with the care of anywhere between 15 and 40 babies at a time. The gig can be incredible emotional, which probably doesn't come as a surprise to many of you reading.

While I can't get into details, I can say that my responsibilities are all over the map. Sometimes I sit with one baby for the entire four hours, reading books and talking about "Harry Potter" and "The Hobbit" or whatever else comes into my head. I've helped hold a baby while blood was being drawn, sat with babies while wearing a disposable coat and gloves because they can't be directly touched, and told so many fellow parents and total strangers stories about my own son to reassure them that everyone in the NICU is doing their best to make sure their child is healthy.

It's the kind of experience that's impossible not to bring home with you. I worry endlessly about some of the more challenging conditions some of these kids are faced with, and I always send out a wish for energy and health when one is going home.

As much as I expected to be overwhelmed when faced with a pod full of screeching preemies or full-term infants who are facing challenges I'll never know, I've actually found a quiet peace in the work that I do. Above all else, I've never felt so incredibly grateful for the life that I have.

My life isn't perfect -- in fact, right now it's about as messy as it's ever been. Between tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, an adorable and brilliant child with two medical conditions who needs closer-than-average attention, a relationship that is seemingly always going through ups and downs and managing to keep everyone's needs met while juggling three jobs, things are a little intense.

It's easy to get bogged down by what's going on around me if I let myself, and that's one reason I'm so appreciate of this volunteer position that I have. Whenever I'm feeling especially stressed or like I can't cope, I'm reminded of how the smallest of us are struggling with so much more than I am.

The point of this isn't to talk about how great I am for volunteering in a NICU, it's just to say this: if you're ever feeling overwhelmed, overworked, or like you can't deal, volunteering in a place that you genuinely believe in might do the trick for you. It doesn't have to be a NICU -- it can be anywhere that you think would be good for you and that you can be good for. Bonus: By modeling a positive behavior (giving back to your community, being grateful) you'll be teaching your kid(s) to do the same, and some studies show that teaching your kids to be grateful will have long-term benefits.

It's not always easy to find the energy or time to care for an additional person when you're already stretched to the max caring for the ones you live with -- let alone a whole unit of people. I get that. But the personal rewards and lessons you stand to gain? They might be endless.