In her years as a young volunteer in Atlanta, 21-year-old Elle Oser has made sandwiches for the homeless, sorted canned goods at a food bank, run in support of breast cancer awareness, and helped create a reading room for mothers and children in one of the city's biggest shelters.
During the drive home after each activity, Elle and her mom, Laranne Oser, would reflect on the day and unwind in each other's company, putting aside the everyday stresses of school and home.
The Osers are involved in the Atlanta Buckhead chapter of the National Charity League (NCL), a nonprofit group that promotes the fostering of mother-daughter bonds through community service and leadership. Laranne signed the two of them up when Elle was in 8th grade. After a brief bit of skepticism on Elle's part ("It sounded like a lot of work," she said.), they dove right in, culminating in the planning and creation of a mural- and book-filled reading room at Atlanta's City of Refuge with another pair of NCL volunteers, Claire and CiCi Reid.
"We’ve never had a bad time," said Elle, now a junior at the University of Mississippi. There have been hard times -- she recalls pre-dawn wakeup calls on Saturdays and the witnessing of uncomfortable or heartbreaking scenes. "But we pushed each other, and were always glad we did it."
Studies have long shown the social and health benefits of volunteering. Those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional abilities, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. The National Charity League takes the data a step further, centering its mission on the belief that the bond between a mother and daughter will strengthen through the joint effort of helping others.
NCL was founded in Los Angeles in 1925. Mothers active in the
arts community would bring their girls along to meetings and luncheons.
"Eventually the idea was proposed that the daughters could get involved,
too," explained Shawn Sylvia, national president, NCL Inc.
While the group has grown over the years to 194 chapters and more than 50,000 members, its mission has never changed, Sylvia said. "Our mission is to foster the mother-daughter relationship. How we do that is through community service, leadership development and cultural experience."
The group targets girls in middle school and high school, often a challenging time for mother-daughter relationships. Each chapter follows NCL's affiliation guidelines, Sylvia said, but the volunteer pairs might start out with behind-the-scenes work at food banks or singing at a home for the elderly before graduating to more hands-on activities like working in homeless shelters and building houses for Habitat for Humanity.
For some, the volunteering experience doesn't stop after their active time at NCL ends. CiCi Reid says volunteering is now an integral part of her life. A nursing student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, she says she makes a point of stopping by City of Refuge with her mom to help out whenever she returns home to Atlanta. The pair spent so much time there during their NCL years that it feels like a second home, she says.
"It started a pattern I will continue for the rest of my life. Volunteering is just built into my routine now," CiCi says.
Mary Ann Naughton, a member of the San Francisco chapter of NCL, also feels that the experience propelled her older daughter, Cassie, now in college in Wisconsin, to a lifelong love of volunteering and a renewed sense of awareness about her hometown.
"It’s not only about giving back to the community," she said. "It’s a whole leadership program. It opened up the whole city for us."
For Naughton, however, a scene involving her younger daughter, Sonia, left the most remarkable impression. They both volunteer at a native plant nursery, where they sort seeds, weed the garden and do whatever else is needed.
One day Sonia, who tends to be quiet and shy, branched out on her own within the nursery and worked independently on a project, while chatting comfortably with other volunteers and staffers. "She usually stuck with me during volunteering," Naughton said, "but this time she decided to go off and work on something on her own. She felt so secure and confident that she could do that. I loved that."
It's not only the daughters who grow during their volunteer hours. Claire Reid, CiCi's mom, credits her daughter with introducing her to an unfamiliar area of the city that she would not necessarily have ventured to on her own. CiCi's lack of fear and enthusiasm to help inspired her to let go of her own doubts, she said.
"No matter what was going on at school, (volunteering) always gave us that time together," Claire said. "When things were stressful, she could focus on something so different. We just had so much fun together. It put perspective on what matters in our world."