While other kids her age hang out at the mall, 13-year-old Jeanna Allsopp hangs out at the Santa Ana Senior Center--and not just during Christmas vacation.
It's not boring or a drag or a problem. As a matter of fact, Jeanna says, the time she spends volunteering at the center is fun.
"I've learned that a lot of the seniors aren't, like, out of it. Their minds are good and they know what they are talking about," she says.
In the process of giving to others, psychologists say, people like Jeanna who open their hearts to others probably gain as much as they give. When they visit the lonely, feed the homeless and help the less fortunate, volunteers take away a sense of well-being that's hard to get any other way.
Such relationships between giver and receiver are important, says psychologist Gloria Ryder, who encourages her clients to volunteer at Christmastime and throughout the year as a means to combat depression, improve self-esteem and learn how to get along better with others.
"These relationships are important for any number of reasons," says Ryder, who maintains a private practice and is a professor at National University in Irvine. "We need to feel that there is some reciprocity, that I give to you and you give to me. It is very important when you are doing volunteer work that you are giving something to that person and in turn that person is giving something back to you. It is one of the basic premises of relationships."
What volunteers like Jeanna get in return, Ryder says, is love.
"When you are doing that kind of work, it's the love that comes from the recipients," she says. "That love could be through a smile, a look, a touch. But if you get that smile, you know that you've just connected. There is nothing that feels so good as touching someone else's life."
Unfortunately, many people don't feel they have time to volunteer, Ryder says. "There are so many demands in our day-to-day routines and if someone is extremely busy and doesn't allow the time to do volunteer work, this is the time of year they start thinking about it. It's the Christmas spirit, that sense of doing something of value or worth."
For people who are prone to the holiday blues, volunteering can be especially important. "When there is depression, being able to do something that mobilizes yourself--volunteer work, for example--helps because it gives a sense of worth."
In psychological terms, such selfless giving helps narrow the gap between our idealized self and our real self, Ryder says.
"Our idealized self is the shoulds we get from society, churches, teachers, mentors, parents. The real self is what we really are. The wider the gap between the two, the lower the self-esteem. Society teaches that the idealized self is to give back to the world. So when we are involved in such activities, then it makes the real self feel better."
Jeanna says she doesn't really know anything about the "idealized self" and the "real self." She just knows that working at the Senior Center makes her feel better.
"I don't like being stuck at home," she says. "I enjoy volunteering."
During the year that Jeanna has been working at the center, she's made several new friends, including fellow volunteer Elsie Mercandante, 83. Despite the difference in their ages, Jeanna and Elsie enjoy talking about their families, their interests and their lives.
"She talks about her new little grandson," says Jeanna, who occasionally refers to Mercandante as grandma. "And I tell her about school. And when she sees me, she gives me a hug."
Mercandante, who has volunteered at the Senior Center for 16 years, says that Jeanna is "good worker, always busy. She's a very nice girl and I'm an old lady, but we find all kinds of things to talk about."
For many volunteers, building friendships with other volunteers who share their interest in a given area is an additional benefit. In Jeanna's case, it has meant the opportunity to become friends with someone 70 years her senior.
Ryder believes that such relationships between the young and the old are especially important in today's world, in which many teen-agers don't often socialize with the elderly.
For eight years, Rose Giurdino, 79, has volunteered at the Food Distribution Center in Orange. Giurdino says volunteering helps keep her healthy and young at heart. She started volunteering at the center shortly after her husband died.
"I got tired of playing bridge," says Giurdino, who is in charge of the mail room at the nonprofit food bank. "Besides, I think if you just sit home when you get older, you really do get old . The secret is keeping active."
Involvement in the lives of others is very important for the elderly, Ryder says.
"It is important that they maintain connections, a sense of doing something, of not withdrawing," Ryder says. "Then they will avoid the feelings of stagnation and despair. If you maintain a sense of being worthwhile, basically a sense of being alive, that is so important."