The Powerful Lesson I Learned Volunteering at a Camp for Ukrainian Refugees

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Getty Images; Courtesy Michael Clinton

WHEN I APPROACHED the Hala Arena Ukrainian refugee center in Poznan, Poland, I was struck by the silence. Several families sat quietly outside, waiting with overstuffed duffel bags. One girl sat on a suitcase, hugging a teddy bear with a weary look in her eyes. The same silence was inside the center, in the food and clothing distribution area and by the makeshift cots that filled the arena. It was the first time I had ever participated in a humanitarian effort, and the experience was intense. I joined a local group that was providing clothes for newly arrived families. It was heartbreaking to watch mothers comfort their children, wondering what would come next. Seeing people with so little and facing such uncertainty makes you think about your priorities and choices.

I found my way to the city of Poznan through my Polish friend Mariusz Szeib. He and I had met at the Antarctica Marathon in 2014, where we were both finishing our seven marathons on seven continents. Over the years, we stayed in touch, and when Ukraine was invaded, I reached out to him to see what was happening in his hometown. When I learned that 40,000 refugees had come through Poznan and that he had already begun working on relief efforts, I knew what I had to do. About a decade ago, some friends and I started a foundation called Circle of Generosity, and its mission is to give grants as random acts of kindness to those in need. Along with volunteering my time in Poznan, I wanted to find local organizations Circle of Generosity could partner with to help. Ultimately, we made grants for food, shelter, clothing, and household goods and teamed up with Warto Razem, a grassroots organization that assists with basic services. Being in Poznan gave me a renewed sense of how fulfilling it is to volunteer and to help others.

warsaw, mazowieckie, poland   20220419 an overview of the sleeping area at the global expo reception centre in warsaw it is estimated by the unhcr, the un refugee agency, that five million ukrainians have left since russia invaded ukraine on february 24th almost three million people have crossed the polish border from ukraine in warsaw, still thousands of people are sheltering in the global expo reception centre for refugees   one of many and second largest refugee shelter in the capital photo by attila husejnowsopa imageslightrocket via getty images

Refugees from Ukraine queue to get on buses to other destinations in Poland, outside the train station in Przemysl, near the Ukrainian-Polish border in southeastern Poland on March 16, 2022.

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Often we focus on creating a fitness regimen but overlook a different kind of workout that can also improve our physical and mental health. Service to others can have multiple effects on your well-being, as well as nourish your soul. Regardless of how you define service, I believe you can find true peace and satisfaction only if you devote part of your life to helping others. Kindness not only increases your self-esteem but can also decrease blood pressure and boost serotonin and dopamine for that overall sense of feeling good, according to a range of research. Other studies reveal that helping others creates a sense of purpose, a shift away from the self, which improves your mental health.

Service to others has always been one of my life priorities. It has helped me de-stress and develop a stronger feeling of self-worth. In my book, ROAR Into the Second Half of Your Life (Before It’s Too Late), there are many examples of how people decide how to give back. The key is to figure out what you’re most interested in and find a way to contribute, whether it’s expertise, time, money, or something else.

Become a Volunteer

YOUR TIME IS precious: Identify what you really care about. Is it youth services, climate change, social justice, youth sports, the arts? Only you can answer what is important to you. As the first
college graduate in my family, I’ve been a mentor to students as well as to coworkers. Whether you’re counseling family members, colleagues, or friends, there is deep satisfaction in helping someone pinpoint their goals and advising on how to achieve them. Mentoring doesn’t have to take a ton of time. It’s about consistency: phone calls, emails, and the occasional coffee or meal. When I was first introduced as someone’s mentor, it touched me deeply. Friends who coach youth sports say the same thing: Being called coach by kids long after they played on your team is a special bond.

Every Donation Helps

ACCORDING TO Giving USA, individuals donated $471 billion to charities in 2020. I’m sure you have supported friends who were leading fundraisers for their runs or triathlons, or have given to efforts in your neighborhood. Every dollar that you can afford to contribute will help (check the rating of your charity on and and will give you that sense of well-being that comes with it. My suggestion is to identify two or three charities that you are passionate about and commit to them on an annual basis. Involve your family, especially your kids, who will learn the importance of giving.

Find Greater Purpose

SOME PEOPLE have such a strong desire to give back that they literally change companies and even professions, moving to a business that aligns with their ethics and outlook or a nonprofit that has a mission they support. Marc Kaplowitz was a successful Wall Street executive who decided to go back to school in his late 40s to get a degree in adolescent education. He now teaches math at an inner-city high school. His shift was driven by the need to have greater purpose. If you have worked in the for-profit sector, nonprofits are eager to have your experience and knowledge, whether it is in management, finance, development, or tech. Curious about what’s out there? Start by visiting job-listing sites like and

Start a Foundation

IF YOU HAVE a deep passion for a cause, consider starting your own foundation—even if you don’t have deep pockets. Contact a lawyer about creating a 501(c)(3), the most common form. At Circle of Generosity, we have donated to many families hit by natural disasters in cities across the United States. Coming from a working-class family, I understand the challenges of everyday expenses. With my own good fortune, I’m now able to help those who are the neediest through our foundation’s mission. It is a way of paying homage to my own beginning.

This story appears in the October 2022 issue of Men’s Health.

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