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Article Published January 15, 2020

Volunteering: Good for Them, Good for You

By Pem McNerney/

The end of the year is always a busy time for Vinnie and Margaret Diglio. In addition to celebrating the holidays with their own extended family, they oversee their town’s food pantry, and special holiday deliveries, too. On top of the normal hours they put in for their volunteer work all year, that means many more hours at the end of the year, picking up donations, organizing them, packing them up, and working with other volunteers to make sure the bulging bags of food, books, and gifts gets to the right doorstep at the right time.

So it is with a sense of relief that, at the beginning of each year, they head out from Madison to vacation in a resort city on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, to the same place every year. They enjoy the sun and the sand, the markets packed with fresh food, and planning elaborate and delicious dinners with fellow vacationers who visit the same place each year.

And their holidays include teaching high school students conversational English three days a week, in two-hour sessions. The students attend these classes with the Diglios after their regular school day in an open-air church yard with a corrugated roof and no air conditioning. And that is the Diglios’ idea of fun.

While volunteering started with the Diglios’ desire to help others, the work they are doing has become a reward in and of itself, they say. It’s become a family affair for them, with their children and grandchildren pitching in, too.

“What we discovered was that we were the beneficiaries of our volunteerism,” says Margaret Diglio, who, with her husband, participates in a variety of other volunteer activities. “The words of gratitude and well wishes enrich our lives.”

There is science to support what the Diglios and other volunteers have found; volunteering benefits the volunteer as well as the people they help.

Volunteers generally feel more socially connected, less lonely, and less depressed, and some evidence suggests it may be linked to lower blood pressure and a longer lifespan, according to an article by Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing. An article in the scientific journal Hormones and Behavior suggests providing help or support to others can create a buffer between stressful events and ailments sometimes created by stress. Another journal, Psychology and Aging, published an article that said those who volunteered at least 200 hours in the past year were less likely to develop hypertension and they were more likely to experience psychological wellbeing.

For those who have considered volunteering, but aren’t sure how to get started, here are some ideas.

Around Town

When Lee White isn’t working as a food columnist for Shore Publishing, she often can be found volunteering, including on her local Board of Education. She’s been doing it for about four years.

“It costs about 15 to 20 hours a week,” she says, including meetings, school events, conferences, reading, and learning constantly. “It’s the best thing I have ever done. I sometimes think I should be paying for this experience.”

To get started, contact your local Republican or Democratic Town Committee. There is a list of all the town committees, with contact information on the Secretary of the State’s website at If you are not affiliated with a political party, you can also contact town hall or your town’s top elected official or town manager to find out what kind of openings are available. Sometimes volunteers can be appointed, other times they have to run for office. Opportunities can include serving on the Board of Education, environmental committees, planning boards, and more.

Be a Sport

Nicole Ball of Branford was a Special Olympics coach starting at age 9, up until her early 20s.

“Hands down it was one of the best experiences of my life to volunteer as a child, and learn about something totally foreign to me,” she says. “It shaped my perspective about people and humanity in general. The particular work of serving others who really needed me made me realize that anything you can offer at all could mean the world to someone. I got so much more in return for my time.”

She also says timing is everything, when it comes to volunteering, and that some times in people’s lives are better than others.

“I think there is an element of volunteer burnout,” she says. “I had to step away as I started my family in order to be a better volunteer in the moments I had free.”

Her husband, Joe Ball, has stepped up to be a volunteer coach for his children’s sports.

“Talk about a hero! Coaching elementary school boys is like herding kittens! It takes a special person to do that for sure,” she says.

To get started, if your children express an interest in sports, find out whether the team needs help with coaching or other roles, which can include helping to plan travel, planning team-building get togethers, helping to organize sign-ups, and more.

Special Olympics often is looking for both event volunteers (escorts for athletes, announcers, or scorekeepers). For more information, visit It also is looking for ongoing volunteers (coaches, chaperones, medical personel, board members)—for more information on that, contact Director of Volunteer Services Katie York at or 203-230-1201 ext. 224. Those in Chester, Clinton, Deep River, East Lyme, Essex, Killingworth, Madison, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, and Westbrook can visit and those in Branford, Guilford, Madison, North Branford, North Guilford, and North Madison can visit

Food on the Table

There are few things more rewarding than providing someone with a good meal. Local and regional food pantries are another great volunteer opportunity.

Mike Urban of Old Saybrook cooks once a month at the soup kitchen in Old Saybrook.

“I enjoy the camaraderie in the kitchen, the expressions of thanks from patrons who enjoy their meals, and the culinary skills I’m continually developing by cooking for large groups. I’ve been doing it for nearly 10 years and look forward to it every month,” he says.

Christine Lena of Madison agrees. For 20 years, she and her family have started their Thanksgiving morning serving breakfast on the New Haven Green, along with the Giorgio family of Madison and the extended Manguilli family of Durham, which started the tradition.

“All is possible thanks to many generous breakfast item donations we gather. We wouldn’t think of any other way to start the day before we rush home to put our turkeys in the oven and give thanks for our blessings,” she says.

To get started, find out if your town has a local food pantry. The town’s social services coordinator in town hall can provide information on that. There are also several shoreline area initiatives that rely upon volunteer support. Those include the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen in New Haven (, the Community Soup Kitchen in New Haven (, the Community Dining Room in Branford (, and the Shoreline Soup Kitchens & Pantries in Old Saybrook (

Food pantries, in addition to providing hot meals, also often offer other support services as well, including vocational and educational programs, and can often use help with those areas as well.

Helping the Most Helpless

In addition to people needing help, there are plenty of animals who need help, too. Jenn Higham of East Haven—who volunteers in a wide range of activities including her local Chamber of Commerce and scouting organizations—also donates her photography skills to her local animal shelter by taking photos of the animals who need homes.

“Seeing the adoption photos makes my heart soar,” she says. “Volunteering is the greatest gift you can give to your community or organization. Personally for me it has been something that just makes you feel right. It’s not a feeling of praise or a pat on the back it’s just giving back because you want to.

To get started, check your town’s website to see if have a local shelter. Local shelters often run on shoestring budgets and are grateful for donations of items, including towels, blankets, animal beds, food, and more. They also often need people just to spend time with the animals. Regional shelters also rely upon donations and volunteers. Those include Animal Haven in North Haven (, the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter in Branford (, Forgotten Felines in Westbrook (, and the Valley Shore Animal Welfare League in Westbrook (

For the Civic Minded

Kathy DeBurra of Madison says you may not think a group of women from a small town can make a different.

“But we certainly do!” she says.

The Women’s Club of Madison provides scholarships to local students, donates books to school libraries, and supports veterans. Members even help Santa answer his mail, a particularly charming and lovely seasonal event that often includes gathering around someone’s kitchen table, sharing a dish or two, and discussing how best to answer requests from local youngsters, which can range from an ask for a new toy to a heartfelt plea for someone to get well.

One of the club members, Elizabeth Dock Early, has spearheaded an effort to help out an orphanage in Nepal.

“We have packed suitcases, which she hand delivers, with their simple wish lists of over the counter medicines, socks, personal products, and more,” DeBurra says.

The group also supports the arts, the local food pantry, the local land trust, and many more organizations.

“There is not a better feeling to see a smile from someone who needs something,” DeBurra says. “We are not boastful about what we do but if you want to meet some of the best friends of your life, come to a meeting and join some projects and the club.”

In addition to Madison, there are Women’s Clubs in Hamden, Killingworth, Northford-North Branford, North Haven, and more. More information about those clubs is available at

For the civic minded, there are other ways to get started as well. Lion’s Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, United Way, Habitat for Humanity, Literacy Volunteers, and other groups are often seeking new members and volunteers as well.

A Patron of the Arts

Shoreline Arts Alliance (SAA) loves its volunteers so much that it is going to make them king and queen.


The Guilford-based alliance of area arts organizations and artists holds a huge Mardi Gras Gala every year, this year on Saturday, Feb. 29 at Saybrook Point Inn & Spa in Old Saybrook, and not only is it looking for volunteers to help with the event, it plans to plant a crown on the heads of two people who were dedicated volunteers this past year, Andrea Aron of Madison and Steve Kops of Guilford,

“Yes, that is how much we love them, we are making them king and queen,” says Eric Dillner, executive director of SAA. “Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization. We could never do what we do without them.”

In particular, Dillner says, arts organizations like SAA often need specific support from people who have organizational and business skills, including event planning, bookkeeping, and serving on the board of directors. In return, those volunteers find themselves at the center of a community of artists.

He remembers one volunteer standing next to an artist at an event, in front of the artist’s work made up entirely of tiny pen strokes. The volunteer asked the artist how he did it. The artist responded that he did it one tiny pen stroke at a time, over a long period of time. In the same way, Dillner says, the daily or weekly efforts of volunteers build up over time to help build a community of which they become a part.

“I hear time and again, it’s the greatest experience ever,” he says.

To get started, identify a local arts organization of interest and inquire about volunteer opportunities. SAA is always looking for people to take photos, help out in the office, sit in the gallery, meet submitters, and many more jobs, with more information available at Other area arts organizations include Madison Lyric Stage ( and The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center ( In the summer, the International Festival of Arts and Ideas ( often needs volunteers, and every other year, with the next festival in 2021, the Guilford Performing Arts Festival ( relies upon a large contingent of volunteers.