Columbus native Anjila McCool started volunteering with her family when she was in elementary school. Her husband, [skipwords]Indiana[/skipwords] native Tony McCool, was an adult serving in the U.S. Air Force before he participated in his first volunteer activity. They got married less than a year after they met in July 2001 while volunteering for a Columbus Jaycees project. “Our interest was working with the community and (romance) just blossomed from there, the more we worked together, the more things we found in common,” said Anjila.

They’re actually part of a volunteer trio, engaging their 7-year-old daughter, Abbygail, in age-appropriate activities. Abby has donated her toys and movies to our local the Ronald McDonald House and she has joined us several times in the kitchen to cook meals for juvenile hospital patients and their families. We collect donated toys, wrap and present them for Christmas assistance with Abbygail, neighborhood drives for food banks and she really enjoys entertaining the children and sharing art projects with children at Camp Dream and many of our community projects like the Twilight Run for Autism and Relay for Life.

The McCools work on projects both individually and as a couple. Tony, 42, an Aflac distribution lead specialist for three years, volunteers with many organizations through the Columbus Jaycees. Anjila, 38, a policy services invoice specialist, celebrated her sixth anniversary with Aflac in June. The Jaycees project closest to her heart is Camp Dream (www.campdreamga.org), a summer camp in Warm Springs, Ga., for disabled children and young adults, and she, too, volunteers with other organizations through Jaycees programs. “We have many volunteer hours throughout the year and we participate in a lot of community events,” said Anjila.

The McCools spoke to Mother Nature Network about what volunteering means to them.

Mother Nature Network: Why do you volunteer?

Tony: I don’t think of it as just something to do. It’s not "this is what I do," it’s "this is who I am."

Anjila: It makes me feel like a better person to give back. This is how we want to raise our daughter as a community volunteer, leader, and humanitarian.

How does the community benefit from volunteers like you helping out?

Tony: (Through Jaycees,) we teach core leadership skills to young people age 18 to 40; we lead by getting involved in projects and they learn how to project manage by default.

Anjila: We bring our project knowledge and experiences through past events to help others be successful and in a way we are helping the next generation to continue in volunteering by assisting and mentoring them.

How do you benefit from volunteering?

Tony: It makes you feel good when you give back. You can’t put a price on doing what’s right.

Anjila: We’ve made lots of friends. The kind of recognition we get (is) when people ask us, "What project are you working on and what's next?"

What are special moments you recall from a volunteer activity?

Tony: At Camp Dream, I took a wheelchair-bound teen on a canoe ride. He had never been in a canoe; no one had ever asked him if he wanted to.

Anjila: (On the last day of Camp Dream,) the kids don’t want to leave. I hear them (tell their families) about what they’ve done — their first strike in bowling, the first fish they caught, their first boat ride or trip down an inflatable slip-n-slide, first horseback ride or even that they went to their first dance. Camp Dream opens up areas of opportunity in the kid’s lives. The families now (know they can) take them after they realize the kids can do it. On that day alone, I know that I have done my best to make a positive experience for a child living with a disability and to hear them say: “Yes, I Can!” is worth all the effort.

How has volunteering changed or enriched your life?

Tony: It changed my purpose and scope of what life is all about. (Instead of life being centered around one’s self and family only,) do you want to make an impact on people’s lives outside of your family? Volunteering has humbled me and put into perspective how much we take for granted. That’s not something I thought about when I was younger.

Anjila: Volunteering has made my life more fulfilling. I can see the difference one person can make. I joined an Aflac group of people doing things for cancer awareness, as I got involved I was able to share how much early detection testing really does make a difference for survival as I was diagnosed with cancer. “It’s a good idea to get tested, it could save your life too.”

How has volunteering made you a better employee?

Tony: It helps me look at physical workplace challenges in a different view. (Volunteering with people with disabilities) makes you aware of things (an able-bodied person) doesn’t normally think about, like stepping over a doorway threshold or reaching a doorknob. Aflac does a good job of making the building handicapped accessible. But if I see something blocking a hallway, I’ll move it out of the way, not just walk around it.

Anjila: Being a volunteer has made me take more of a leadership role in my team at work. [Anjila said her co-workers have called her a cheerleader at times.] A positive attitude makes co-workers realize, "We can do this — we can make this goal."

What lessons have you learned from volunteer experiences?

Tony: Not to take things for granted. It’s made me appreciate the abilities I have, and find out how I can use my abilities to help someone.

Anjila: Children living with disabilities don’t focus on being disabled, but (able-bodied) people are taught to see them as being disabled (I’ve learned) not to see anyone as if they’re disabled — "You have the ability to do this, we just have to figure out how." We’re all given a challenge, it’s what we do with these life challenges that makes the difference to everyone.

Have you identified additional community needs and initiated new projects?

Tony: There’s no dog park in Columbus. I thought the Jaycees could build one and donate it to the city. [Tony enlisted a younger Jaycees member to research this project, giving the next generation a leadership opportunity. It’s in the development stage.]

Anjila: (At my suggestion,) the Jaycees started a recycling project for equipment for the disabled, such as wheelchairs, ramps and walkers. Used equipment no longer needed by an individual is made available to Camp Dream families. [Three have benefited since the program started last summer.] We’re sharing & paying it forward for others with life challenges.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Tony: Still volunteering. I hope my local Jaycees chapter will be larger. I’d like to turn current projects over to others and get involved in different projects.

Anjila: I will still be working and volunteering at Aflac. [Anjila is working part-time toward an undergraduate degree in business and would like to move into a position within Aflac’s Community Philanthropy department.] It’s what I do as a volunteer in the community and for the community.