Historically, when soldiers entered the battlefield, they often didn't expect to make it home. And many never did. But today, advances in technology and treatment of battle-related injuries are allowing those who would have died in the past to survive. A 2008 RAND report revealed that service members in Iraq and Afghanistan are surviving injuries that would've been fatal in the past. Nearly 300,000 people have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression - just a few of the difficulties that can make adapting to a "normal" society a major challenge when they return home.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employs the highest number of social workers - who hold master's degrees - in the country and provides extensive services for our veterans. As advocates for change, social workers are involved in navigating post-war issues that veterans deal with, crisis intervention, obtaining benefits and providing mental health therapy to improve veterans' quality of life - and volunteers can do the same. There are countless ways to support veterans, including running errands, assisting with transition from battle, providing support at the end of life, and being a "veteran buddy," if you're a veteran yourself.
The LGBT community has come a long way in the last several years. With new initiatives to provide equal rights regarding marriage, employment and military status, there has been an expanding awareness of the issues that are unique to this community. Social workers have been strong advocates for many of these changes through organizations such as the Council on Social Work Education's Center for Diversity and Social & Economic Justice.
However, a sub-population of the LGBT community continues to struggle: LGBT youth. In particular, this population experiences some of the highest rates of homelessness. Of the 1.7 million adolescents who experience at least one episode of homelessness each year, 20-40 percent identify themselves as LGBT. Issues such as discrimination, bullying and rejection at home are often the drivers that lead to a life on the streets - a situation which increases vulnerability to sexual assault, high-risk behavior, substance abuse and a variety of mental health issues.
Social workers are advocating for change for LGBT youth, and positively impacting this community. By getting involved with organizations such as nonprofits that work to prevent homelessness, federal agencies and LGBT advocacy groups, social workers are helping this at-risk population find hope and acceptance in society.
If you'd like to help the LGBT community, volunteer opportunities are numerous. Check out organizations such as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) to find out more.
Homelessness doesn't exist in a vacuum - it is typically a symptom of a lack of support for other significant issues. Homelessness impacts individuals from diverse backgrounds who face a variety of challenges. In addition to LGBT youth, high rates of homelessness exist among those with mental illness, disabilities and issues with addiction. Many of our veterans are homeless. By working with homelessness prevention initiatives, such as the Urban Justice Center, social workers are advocating for change and offering new solutions for these individuals who may have given up on finding a home.
There are many volunteer opportunities for working with the homeless, such as serving the hungry, helping to run food banks, providing driving services to pick up donations, staffing shelters, and teaching specific skills. The opportunities to make a difference are endless.
Under-served populations in our society are looking for the compassion, skill and expert support that social workers uniquely provide. As a volunteer, you're already showing your commitment to helping others. Joining social workers in advocating for change is a great way to do more of it.
Gabriela D. Acosta is the community manager for the University of Southern California's MSW programs, one of the most innovative and dynamic social work graduate programs online. She is passionate about social justice, community organizing and leadership development. Find us on Twitter @MSWatUSC.