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Palo Alto is not only home to some of the brightest, most innovative people in the world, but it is also home to an incredible army of volunteers who feed and clothe the homeless, drive elderly residents to doctor’s appointments or guide children through the wonders of the Junior Zoo.

Volunteers improve and support the community with their commitment to helping others. The benefits of volunteering are two-fold; not just for the agency served, but also for the volunteer. There is joy in serving others and making a difference in the community. With the right fit, the experience can be life changing.

Katie Cooney, executive director of Deborah’s Palm, a local women’s center, learned that firsthand at an early age.

“Whenever my mom would see someone sitting alone in a park or on the playground, she would tell us to go and ask that child to play,” she said. “She always wanted to help others. That was just ingrained in my family, growing up.”

When Cooney went off to college she found that volunteering helped her connect with other people as well.

“When I was a sophomore at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, I decided to find an organization where I could volunteer and meet new people,” Cooney said. “I found an opportunity at the Newman Catholic Center. I spent the first year helping another student cook meals for the homeless.”

Twice a month, the two would cook the meals and drive downtown to a vacant parking lot where they distributed the meals to a mostly male population.

“It was an eye opener for me,” Cooney added. “It was there that I first became familiar with the dire straights of people who are mentally ill and on the streets.”

After that year, she became more involved with the community and joined others in outreach to the elderly community and serving others.

“I found it was a great place to serve and to meet some wonderful life-long friends,” she said. “It set me on a course that I have followed my entire life. Volunteering has always been a part of me. I find a need and I fill it.”

She continues to serve the homeless by collecting clothing to distribute to those in need and working at the local food bank. She also serves outside of the Palo Alto area through her involvement with Palo Alto University Rotary Club.

“Last year I traveled to El Salvador with a team to assess the needs of the village of Caluco, a village Rotary has been partnering with for the past 10 years,” she added.

As executive director at Deborah’s Palm, Cooney has created a welcoming and comfortable place for women to achieve personal growth, learn practical skills and find a friend or two in the process.

At Deborah’s Palm, women can find help when dealing with life’s unexpected challenges, whether experiencing a job loss, a death in the family, a difficult health diagnosis or the end of a relationship. The staff at Deborah’s Palm has the resources and a large group of dedicated volunteers to help.

A a solid core of more than 65 volunteers “woman” the front desk Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Cooney noted. “They answer the phone, welcome newcomers and keep our class and activities flyers up to date.”

Cooney is quick to add how important volunteers are to the organization. Volunteers help with special events such as the Holiday Bazaar, galas and the Fall Open House. They tend the garden, write pieces for newsletters and social media. Volunteers manage the blog, the operations of the building and assist with fundraising and development – specifically grant sourcing and writing.

“We connect with most of our volunteers online through,” she noted.

Founded in1998, is the Web’s largest volunteer network, supporting more than 100,000 nonprofits. Those who want to volunteer can search geographically to find volunteer opportunities. There are currently over 1,100 volunteer opportunities in the Palo Alto area.

Volunteering is often about finding the right fit, the place where you can best utilize your skills and talents. Sometimes, it’s just about holding a hand, offering a warm cup of tea or finding the beauty in others. Sharing a smile or even a tear or two can give comfort to someone who is going through a difficult time in life.

“Volunteering gives you a purpose, and a sense of community,” Cooney added. “I think that’s why once people start volunteering they never stop.”

In today’s high-tech world, people communicate through texting, email and Skype, but nothing will ever replace the need for human contact or the need to help one another in times of crisis.

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