Around the world, usually in the spring, countries celebrate National Volunteer Week (NVW), thanking those who volunteer and encouraging others to do so as well in community service projects, donating blood, beach and roadside cleanups, etc.

This year’s NVW in the United States was April 19 to 25. The “stay at home” and quarantine policies resulting from COVID-19 no doubt limited the number of people who could participate in the associated activities of NVW there and worldwide.

But at the same time, the pandemic highlighted the importance of volunteers. Without volunteers, little in our respective communities — neighborhoods, schools, organizations and larger society — would function, particularly as government services get further and further restricted due to budget cuts and other priorities.

In Japan, Jan. 15 to 21 is the designated time to recognize volunteers. Formally called the Disaster and Volunteer Week, it began in 1996, having been approved at a Cabinet meeting the month before. The middle of the week, Jan. 17, is the anniversary of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which saw a great deal of volunteer efforts, and as such is named Disaster and Volunteer Day. Indeed, 1995 is considered the “first year of volunteering in Japan.”

Of course, volunteering had existed before, but the role of volunteers and the importance of ordinary people volunteering was truly recognized at that point.

As a first-year graduate student at Kobe University’s School of Law, I was greatly affected by the disaster but was fortunately unharmed, living some distance from the epicenter. With the university closed, I spent the next few months volunteering at different locations — city halls, community centers, schools and evacuation centers in Ashiya and Kobe proper. I was able to reunite with classmates and others I knew from the area, and meet other volunteers, both individuals and those who were part of more organized efforts.

But volunteering does not have to be only during disasters. In fact, I would hope that it is not only at those unfortunate, panic-stricken, and stressful times, for a number of reasons. More effective volunteering takes place when people are experienced at it, can take charge or show leadership, or follow instructions carefully and faithfully. Think of volunteering as fitness training or working on a skill. Practice makes perfect.

It is even better when you are used to working as a group, knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and learning how to communicate with your co-volunteers and the individuals or communities you may be serving. Communicating is not only about expressing oneself, but listening as well.

For these reasons, I would like to see more people — everyone, for that matter — volunteer. Everyone has something to offer, no matter what the skill set or skill level.

This is especially true of young people. I believe schools and universities should encourage or mandate weekly volunteer activities. (I understand the argument that mandating something removes the “voluntary” aspects of it.) But the mandate is more toward the educational institute rather than the student. Young people could choose a cause or activity to get involved in, raising his or her social conscience and/or involvement with society at large or their immediate community.

Previous polling by the Japan Association of Student Service Organizations showed that Japanese students did not volunteer as much as foreign counterparts. The reasons they gave were that classes, part-time work and extracurricular activities prevented them from having the time to volunteer. Hence, the need to mandate it, with schools and students finding a way to carve out some time during the week/weekend for volunteering.

How much time is appropriate?

This may vary by the week and individual, but I think a good measure is to think of volunteering as similar to tithing. In other words, as a tithe in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as the cultures of some other religions, is one-tenth of one’s income (crops, animals, wealth, etc.) given to the church or charity, perhaps one-tenth of one’s work (study) week (i.e., one-tenth of 40 hours) could be used for volunteering. This would amount to four hours a week, or eight hours every two weeks. A little could be done each day, or four-hour (half-day) or eight-hour (whole day) blocks could be set aside.

The rewards of volunteering weekly (or biweekly) would be enormous for one’s self and community. The individual may learn new skills, make new friends and possess a sense of satisfaction. The community (neighborhood, school, senior citizens’ home, nonprofit organization, etc.) would benefit not only by free labor but hopefully someone committed to the mission and well-being of the place.

Organizations — companies, schools, etc. — should actively promote volunteering among the staff and students, starting in elementary school. It is the ultimate “good neighbor” policy, and an important pillar of Corporate Social Responsibility. Schools will find these activities make their students better at their studies, more engaged in and out of the classroom and more passionate about their fields or interests.

Volunteering does not have to be limited to only those physically fit. Everyone, including those with special needs, can contribute their unique ability, insight or labor. This leads to a greater sense of empowerment, new relationships and a greater connection with society.

Like natural disasters in the past, the COVID-19 pandemic (and man-made disaster aspects of it) has shown how important volunteers are to the world. Let’s hope there can be a new nationwide commitment to making volunteerism easier and that everyone participates.

Robert D. Eldridge was a tenured associate professor at Osaka University and is the author of the forthcoming "University Reform and Japan's Educational Rebirth" (in Japanese).

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