January’s most heard phrase may be “New Year, New You.” But what if it wasn’t about “you” at all but about others? Helping others through volunteering not only makes a community better, it also makes the person better, providing a sense of purpose, teaching new skills, and even improving physical and mental health, according to Mayo Clinic Health System.
Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
Steve Wilson and Vanita Shah are two avid volunteers in Eden Prairie who have not only improved the lives of countless residents by giving of their time and talents, but also have experienced firsthand the joy it brings. Here, they share their insights into how and why they started volunteering and how it has improved their lives.
Catching smiles, hooking hearts
Steve Wilson loves to fish. As the president of the Eden Prairie chapter of Let’s Go Fishing, a non-profit organization, he is committed to sharing this joy with others.
In 2022, the chapter enabled 4,000 seniors, veterans, youth, and individuals with disabilities to experience the thrill of fishing on Lake Riley, all at no cost and on fully accessible pontoons.
Wilson has volunteered in Eden Prairie for many years in various capacities, including Wooddale Church and the Eden Prairie Lions Club.
While volunteering with the Lions Club, Wilson first discovered Let’s Go Fishing. This organization launched its inaugural Minnesota chapter in Willmar in 2002.
After hearing the founder speak, Wilson and six to eight others started a chapter in Eden Prairie. They received $10,000 from the Lions Club and borrowed the rest needed to buy a new pontoon.
“It was a real challenge at first,” Wilson said. “We were the only volunteers.”
The organization now has two 30-foot pontoons, docks, two lifts, and two sheds on Lake Riley.
And, added Wilson, “we have 145 volunteers right now.”
Married for 52 years with two daughters and three grandchildren, Wilson still works at his company, Learning Opportunities, and enjoys spending time with his family. He frequently takes his grandchildren fishing, a hobby he enjoys himself. In addition to these activities, he dedicates about 40 hours a week during fishing season to Let’s Go Fishing as its president.
His own love of fishing is one important reason Let’s Go Fishing resonated with him. He shared that his father died at age 90, and his father-in-law died at age 97.
“They both loved to fish, but they weren’t able to fish in the last few years of their lives,” Wilson said. “All of our boats are handicapped-accessible, so we can help other people’s parents fish as they age, and hopefully, someone will take me fishing someday, too.”
Helping others has been instilled in Wilson since an early age.
“I was brought up on a farm in South Dakota, and we always felt we were blessed,” he said. “And since we felt blessed, we also wanted to help other people.”
Wilson also noted that volunteering benefits the volunteer as much as those being helped.
“When you volunteer, yes, you think you are helping them, but you are also helping yourself more than anything because it improves your attitude, and attitude is 99 percent of life, I always say,” Wilson remarked.
Wilson has also benefitted personally by meeting and working with “so many wonderful people giving of themselves.”
He continued, “Those are the kind of people I like to associate with, people who are giving and are about other people. That is what the world needs now. It is really fun, too, because people who volunteer are great people. The key is to want to give back to people when blessed and bless other people.”
Wilson has also seen firsthand the impact it has had on other volunteers.
“Everyone loves volunteering here,” he said. “I had one fellow just recently tell me it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He gets so much joy out of helping people getting on and off the boat, seeing the smiles on their faces and their joy when they are out on the water.”
Legacy of kindness
Like Wilson, Vanita Shah had helping others instilled in her at an early age.
“I grew up in a family where my parents were always very giving and very kind and respectful and welcoming anyone with open hearts,” she recalled.
Likewise, Shah began modeling for her kids the value of helping others when they were very young, partly as the result of going through difficult times themselves.
“I had three little kids and was going through a really rough time, a divorce,” she said. “I didn’t know many people, and I was so preoccupied, but I was amazed at how many people reached out and provided emotional support to help me get through those battles.”
Though difficult, Shah recalled that volunteering helped her and her children recognize the value of helping others, leading her to consciously pay it forward whenever she had a chance.
When her kids got involved in school, sports, band and other activities, she “took every opportunity to help out.” She said, “Without volunteers, so much would not be possible. Plus, I was really enjoying it. It relieved my hard situation and let me enjoy life.”
Soon, Shah’s children were volunteering along with her. They enjoyed helping together at many city events, especially the annual 4th of July Hometown Celebration, where Shah continues to volunteer. They cheerfully pitched in “wherever we were needed,” said Shah, from the information booth to arts and crafts or games.
In 2009, they began volunteering as a family at The PROP Shop. Shah still volunteers weekly at the nonprofit resale store as a cashier. Though her kids are all grown and two live out of state, they continue her legacy of volunteering by contributing to their own communities.
Not one to seek the limelight in her volunteer efforts, Shah is proud of the legacy she has instilled in her children.
“All the years they watched me and know I continue to volunteer, they see how important it is and feel it is just the right thing to do in their free time,” she said. “You can just sit and watch TV, but why do that when you can go out and help someone?”
Shah also tries to encourage other parents to expose their children to volunteering.
“It helps build their résumés and develops responsibility,” she said, adding, “It can be a real eye-opener for kids to see how much they really can do for others, that they can make a real difference.”
Today, Shah works full-time as an accounting clerk at Park Nicollet, holds a part-time job at the Eden Prairie Community Center, and still manages to “pay forward” the help she received so many years ago.
“It gives me great satisfaction knowing I had gone through rough times and people helped me,” she said. “Without their support and help, I don’t know where I would have been. Their support made me strong enough to get through it. Little things do matter to people out there.”
Shah believes that helping others, particularly those in need, contributes to building a strong community.
She said of Eden Prairie “is so wonderful. Everyone comes together as a family to help each other out and take care of each other.” She believes volunteerism is key to keeping Eden Prairie a great place to live.
“Volunteers help make this a wonderful place to live,” she said. “I hope it continues.”
Shah knows she will continue to do her part, as volunteering is just part of who she is. She wishes she had even more time to volunteer. But, she said, “At least if I ever retire, I know I won’t be sitting at home or sitting in the park. I will always be involved in some sort of volunteer work.”
If you would like to experience the life-changing magic of volunteering for yourself, check out The Hub Resource Directory on the Eden Prairie Community Foundation website. Be on the lookout for the quarterly list of volunteer needs, which will soon appear in the Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN), in collaboration with The Hub.
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