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Volunteerism can be defined as service to others without the expectation of being compensated. But for some local residents, compensation comes in another form.

Paul Whalen measures a broken cornerstone that he salvaged from the old St. Malachy site. Once fixed, it will be used to grace a wishing-well on the new church grounds.

For many years, Paul Whalen, Brownsburg, has been an active volunteer in the community, especially for local Catholic schools. Currently, he serves on the Brownsburg Police Commission and up until recently, the St. Malachy School Board. Whalen is also the P.A. announcer for Cardinal Ritter Varsity games and a long-time coach and mentor for students at St. Malachy. He’s also helped with Cardinal Ritter’s boys and girls basketball programs since the 1990s and once served on the Board of Regents.

When asked what motivates him to volunteer, Whalen cited several reasons.

“Part of it is wanting to stay busy,” he said. “But I do have that “give-back mentality. My wife Susie and I have been blessed with four kids and a nephew. Now we have 11 grandkids. Every time we turn around, we remember how well-off we are. Not necessarily rich, but rich in family and love. The “give-back thing” is real.”

Whalen said he also takes on certain tasks simply because they are fun. In fact, he said when he was asked to serve on a development commission because of his background in finance, he turned it down.

“I’ve worked in finance all of my life, and that’s the way I feel.” he said. “Now, I sometimes do stuff because it’s fun, like the police commission. It’s exciting with some of the stories you hear.”

Although Whalen gives his time in a variety of ways to St. Malachy and Cardinal Ritter, he’s been most active with the schools’ athletic programs.

“I love to see that first smile, whether it comes from a hit, a catch, or making that first basket. The payback is all those smiles, and you can’t put money on that,” Whalen said.

Another local volunteer shows that making a difference in the life of another isn’t limited to people. Michele Dunlavey, a retired VA nurse, has spent the last five years serving at the Hendricks County Humane Society, 3033 E. Main Street, Danville.

Michele Dunlavey drives for an hour and a half from her home in Kingman, Ind. to volunteer at the Hendricks County Humane Society.

For 25 years, she worked at the VA Hospital in Indianapolis but holds degrees in both nursing and zoology. She said she’s had a passion for working with animals since childhood. Fortunately, the opportunity to do so came in 2012 as Dunlavey was driving home from work on the day she retired.

“I saw people here in front of the building and had heard a rumor that it was going to be the new humane society,” she said. “I pulled in the parking lot in June of 2012 and I have been here ever since…”

Dunlavey’s work experience and educational background make her well-suited to support the Humane Society’s mission. However, she said that being a pet-owner also helps.

“People say, ‘Gosh, how can you volunteer there? Don’t you want to bring them all home?’ Dunlavey said. “Well, I have two dogs and two cats of my own and that’s why I volunteer. I can give all of my love and affection to the animals here (Humane Society) and help them get into good homes, but not feel like I have to take every one of them home with me.”

When asked to describe the feeling she gets when improving the life of an animal, Dunlavey said it’s hard to top.

“When I have an animal go to a good home and I’ve helped in that adoption process or seen a sick animal get better so it can then go to a good home, nothing makes you feel better than that,” she said.

So what’s the psychology behind the good vibes of volunteerism? We asked Dr. Sherry Strafford Rediger, a psychologist with 30 years’ experience in individual and family therapy, what role volunteerism plays in mental health, and what goes on the in the brain when someone feels good about giving back?

“Certain endorphins can be released when people engage in volunteer activities,” Rediger said, “Research as has found oxytocin in people who are feeling positive about helping others.”

Oxytocin is said to play a key role in empathy, generosity and pair bonding.

Rediger also said that volunteer work can be beneficial by adding balance to one’s life, promoting a sense of purpose and even by playing a role in alleviating depression.

“There are few things that scientific research has found to alleviate depression that is not medication, but the practice of gratitude is one of those things across the board…,” she said. “There is an increase in a sense of gratefulness and appreciation for life in general for people who are volunteers. So it is sort of a second-tier connection to alleviate depression. That is a definite sign behind connecting those things and volunteer work can be part of that.”

Although volunteer work is shown to be therapeutic for people dealing with negative emotions, Rediger said she would recommend it to almost anyone.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the current body of research shows a significant relationship between volunteering and good health.

“When individuals volunteer, they not only help their community but also experience better health in later years, whether in terms of greater longevity, higher functional ability, or lower rates of depression,” the report stated.

Apart from the mental health benefits, Rediger said she’s noticed a variety of reasons why people volunteer, but compassion seems to be the most common.

“While I think there are people who are adventurers, seeking new knowledge and new experiences, primarily what I noticed is that people engage in volunteer work to contribute to others that are not as able to do it for themselves, people who won’t necessarily be able to repay that service.”

Story and photos by Chris Cornwall

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