#MINDRMAMA Mary Cary Peterson lives in Dallas with her husband, 12 week old son, Sam, and their two dogs. She recently left her position as a STEM/STEAM elementary instructional coach to stay at home with Sam full time. 

I had always hoped to stay home with my children during their earliest years. So when I became pregnant with our first child last summer, my mom strongly advised me to find ways to stay active in my community to avoid becoming “disconnected.” After our son Sam was born, I quickly realized her point. I was lucky not to feel socially isolated, as many of my friends are also new parents and I made a point of getting out of the house at least once a week for lunch dates or walks. But I did realize how easy it was to only talk and think about parenthood. While that may be normal to some extent, I knew I would drive myself (and my husband) crazy if my only discussion topics were baby and baby and... more baby. I needed to find something beyond reading while nursing to stay intellectually active.

So after our flurry of early postpartum visitors and family members left town, I reconnected with some of the organizations that I have volunteered since moving to Dallas two years ago, including talkSTEM, a local non-profit focused on connecting educators and other professionals involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning initiatives. Volunteering has been so meaningful in my post-baby life. If you are looking for ways to get more involved in your community or to reconnect with your pre-parent volunteer self, here are some tips for staying engaged:

Choose something that excites you.

I’ve always enjoyed volunteering for a wide variety of nonprofits, and hope to continue as Sam gets older. Right now, I devote the majority of my volunteer time to talkSTEM, because it’s the type of organization that keeps me intellectually stimulated. Their mission includes empowering young women interested in STEM fields through projects such as their Growing Lab Girls collaborative curriculum supplement.

I initially joined the organization as a volunteer docent for their walkSTEM outreach program, developed in collaboration with Dr. Glen Whitney, founder of the National Museum of Mathematics in New York. As a docent, I led walks through the Dallas Arts District to illuminate how STEM concepts are embedded in our natural and built environments, using the language of math. I also piloted the first walkSTEM after school club at the elementary school where I worked. I love the walkSTEM methodology, because it makes STEM concepts relevant, accessible and fun for everyone. I’ve led walks for groups of all ages, and it’s amazing to see how each stop generates curiosity or creates a light bulb moment for participants - even those who may have had a negative perception of math or STEM fields in school. Through talkSTEM, I’ve met professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds at events.

My advice to other moms looking for engaging volunteer opportunities? First, identify volunteer jobs you’re genuinely interested in doing - even if this means shopping around a little. I’m passionate about a lot of causes, and sometimes I’ve found myself volunteering for jobs I’m not really interested in completing (or for tasks that already have more than enough volunteers), even if I support the organization. Find something that motivates you!

Find something that fits into your schedule with your little one.

It may seem obvious, but it is critical to find an organization that has volunteer activities you can do in your “free” time. Right before Sam was born, I presented at a conference on behalf of talkSTEM with a fellow docent. Since his birth, I’ve co-written conference proposals (something I can do from home while he naps), helped advise other walkSTEM school club leaders and attended talkSTEM meetings with Sam in tow, among other activities. I appreciate the flexibility of being able to volunteer from home and enjoy staying busy. I also recognize the importance of keeping my resume current for when I decide to go back to work.

Expand your volunteer capacity.

If you find you would like to expand your volunteer capacity, find new ways to help the organization. Putting together packages at a food bank but want to do even more? Email the volunteer coordinator and find out if you can help write a grant. Texting or making calls for a local political campaign? Reach out to the campaign manager to see if they need strategic support or help coordinating a campaign event. Join a committee or create one! Plan a fundraiser. Identify your transferable/specialized skills to support an organization’s needs (e.g. designing a logo or accounting). The possibilities are endless, and many community groups rely on volunteers to come up with creative ideas to grow their vision. 

Stick to a schedule.

Finally, stick to a schedule. Speaking from experience, it can be easy to say “Yes!” to every volunteer opportunity that comes across your desk, but your time is precious and the point of volunteering is to positively engage with your community, not burn out!

Are you an active volunteer? Want to become one? Drop us a comment to let us know about your experience with volunteering, and any tips you can add to help us all find more time to give back. Want to connect with Mary about her work at talkSTEM? Send her a line here.

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