Professor Explores Development of Volunteerism
New Book Addresses Community Engagement
By Mike Emery
For many people, the upcoming holiday season is the perfect occasion for contributing time and energy to supporting nonprofit organizations and helping those in need.
According to UHD researcher Dr. Susan Henney and collaborator Dr. Justin Hackett (a former UHD faculty member now teaching at California University of Pennsylvania), the commitment to such community engagement often begins at home, but there are other factors that lead to volunteerism during the holidays and throughout the year.
Henney and Hackett recently co-authored the book “The Development of Community Engagement from Infancy to Adulthood” (Routledge). The text explores the development of volunteerism and civic engagement from infancy to adulthood, as well as the social environments that support community involvement.
“There are three things that inspire volunteerism in all of us,” said Henney, professor of psychology. “Our minds, our emotions and our behavior. They help pose questions that are essential to the act of volunteering. Do we want to help others? Are we empathetic to their needs? And, will we actually perform the tasks necessary to help them?”
Communities and families, she said, can help frame volunteerism as a norm rather than a “special” event or an additional task. Likewise, having access to community engagement initiatives also encourages participation in volunteer activities.
“Being in a family that volunteers regularly increases the probability that one will volunteer,” she said. “But being in a family where empathy and prosocial behaviors are emphasized will also increase the probability that someone will give back to their community. Empathy creates the right mindset for these actions, but people also need the opportunity to practice these behaviors.”
Henney said that opportunities to engage in public service don’t always immediately present themselves. While individuals may have the desire to help others, their personal and professional schedules may limit the actual opportunity to do so.
“If you’re in a household where everyone works multiple jobs and the parents are overburdened with care for their children, you might not have the opportunity to commit to a community project,” she said. “That’s where social institutions come in … the schools, places of worship and organizations that are part of a family’s day-to-day routines. Those organizations that already are part of a family’s life can introduce opportunities that make volunteering possible.”
Some of these organizations provide incentives for community service. On the surface, incentivizing volunteer efforts through academic or professional credits or even free T-shirts might seem like a quid pro quo, Henney said. The fact is that these incentives open the doors to providing needed service for the community and ultimately, they help people of all ages discover the importance of volunteering.
“Organizations such as the National Honor Society, Boy Scouts of America and many others require service hours,” she said. “Once the members of these organizations begin performing community service, they tend to continue.”
Henney and her family volunteer with the organization Project C.U.R.E., which provides recycled medical supplies and equipment to third world countries. The experience not only helps benefit others, but also brings Henney and her family closer together. That holds true for other families and groups of friends.
At the same time, volunteering is not always a source of enjoyment. Children may not recognize the value of community service, and others, such as jail/prison inmates, may be required to perform duties such as roadside clean-up as part of their sentence. Such efforts may not seem fun, but the end result is still productive.
“The fact is that volunteering is not always an altruistic act, but it’s still a valuable service,” Henney said. “It makes an impact on society. It’s okay if you don’t always enjoy volunteering … and it’s great if you look forward to helping others. If it’s part of your repertoire, you are making a valuable contribution to the community.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.