Mardi Gras is just a little over a week away. As I write this, according to the official countdown clock on mardigrasneworleans.com it is exactly 10 days, 11 hours, 3 minutes and 32 seconds away. But who’s counting? On the heels of Shreveport’s Mardi Gras celebration, I began thinking about the origins of Mardi Gras and just how it came to be so deeply rooted in Louisiana’s culture and heritage.
Mardi Gras historians trace its origins to medieval Europe where it was observed in Rome and Venice in the 17th century and then in France in the 18th century. By way of French colonization, Mardi Gras made its way to North America. While the first American Mardi Gras was celebrated in what we now know as Mobile, Alabama, New Orleans (which was founded in 1718) began observing Mardi Gras in the 1730’s.
Literally translated as “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras is the celebration that occurs the last day before Lenten fasting begins on Ash Wednesday. During Lent, which traditionally lasts for 40 days, many Christians commit to fasting of some kind or giving up certain luxuries. In addition to fasting, some Lenten observers may also focus on almsgiving, which is the practice of giving to those in need. The term alms an refer to money, food or donations given to the needy or simply anything given as charity.
No matter one’s religion, remembering and assisting those less fortunate is something that all community members can and should do year around. Assistance does not have to be of the monetary kind. In fact, promoting and participating in volunteerism is one of the best ways I can think of to not only help others but also to better understand your community. The month of April is apparently “National Volunteer Month.” The month is dedicated to honoring volunteers in our community and encouraging volunteerism. To that end, I would like to issue a community challenge for the month of April.
The April Volunteerism Challenge is simple. I call upon all North Louisiana employers to make volunteerism a part of the practice of the workplace. If you think this is too tough to do or presents too many challenges, I assert that the benefits to both you as an employer and to our community will outweigh the challenges.
Specifically, United Healthcare conducted a volunteer survey in 2010 that found that 75 percent of the workers who volunteered felt better about their employer because of its involvement in volunteer activities. According to that study, despite greater positive feelings about their employer, only 25 percent of workers who volunteer actually do so through their employer. Notably, 81% of the volunteers reported that volunteering through work strengthens their relationships with their colleagues. In addition, 84% of the workers surveyed said they would volunteer more if their employer helped provide the means to do so.
Promoting volunteerism results in these direct positive outcomes for employers but also in indirect benefits. For example, a 2013 study by United Healthcare demonstrated that adults who volunteer report doing so makes them feel physically healthier and lowers their levels of stress. Volunteers not only feel a deeper connection to their community but also to other people. Of the volunteers surveyed, 96% said that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life. Happy, healthy employees with a sense of purpose is an obvious win.
The great thing about volunteering is that there are no rules and no shortage of volunteer opportunities! You can volunteer your time, for example, to pack food at the Northwest Louisiana Food Bank. You can volunteer your special skills. If you are a lawyer, take some time out to do some pro bono legal work for those in need through the Shreveport Bar Association. If you are a physician, take one day a month and volunteer your services at the Martin Luther King Health Center & Pharmacy. If you like to work with students, take some time to volunteer through the Volunteers of America or Step Forward to assist students with doing homework or learning to read. If you like to work with the elderly, volunteer your services at the Glen Retirement Center. Finally, if dogs and cats are your passion you can help out at Robinson’s Rescue or the Humane Society of Northwest Louisiana.
In a state steeped deeply in tradition, there is nothing more traditional than helping your fellow man. In the month of April, I challenge all local employers to join in the tradition and start a culture of volunteerism among your employees. If you want to tell us about how your employees volunteer or about your idea to join this challenge in April, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the caption “April Volunteer Challenge.” All of us at the Community Foundation of North Louisiana wish you a safe and joyful Mardi Gras!