Photo: Gabriel Olson for United Way of the Columbia-Willamette
Jalaja Uppili is all smiles.
Passing her on the street and catching her warm gaze, you can’t help but wonder, “What is her secret to being so happy — and can she share it with me?”
On a recent weekday morning, it was delivering donated books to preschoolers at a neighborhood Head Start in northeast Portland. On a previous weekend, it was cleaning up toys and art supplies for kids at a local children’s counseling center.
Make that, nearly 500 previous weekends.
Jalaja has been volunteering regularly for local nonprofits since she first searched United Way's Hands on Greater Portland program website for an opportunity to bring her then 12-year-old son, Harsha, on a service project in 2008.
“It’s addictive!” she explained, laughing. “Volunteering is such a powerful experience. It makes me feel like I am on top of the world every time.”
Their first volunteer experience was sorting and stocking items for Schoolhouse Supplies’ Free Store for teachers. Then they visited the Children’s Book Bank where she and Harsha spent a couple hours cleaning and repairing used books — taping rips, erasing marks, refreshing covers — to get them ready to be treasured at home by children who might not otherwise have books of their own.
Volunteering quickly turned into a regular monthly activity.
“All of us get busy, working, looking after ourselves and our families. You’re doing things for yourself most of the year, most of the day. It’s nice to use some of that time to help others.”
Jalaja’s intention was to involve her son and make helping others a way of life as he grew up, so they often chose projects for parents and children to do together and connected that to helping kids like him.
“It’s so important to help kids feel like somebody cares about them, make them feel loved and that they are important.”
Jalaja and her son became volunteer leaders who coordinate Hands On projects at both the Children’s Book Bank and Kinship House counseling center, as well as special projects during MLK Weekend of Service.
“People come with their children or colleagues, and they come happy and cheerful and ready to go. It is unbelievable how much work gets done—hundreds of books get cleaned, clothes get sorted and packed, toys get cleaned or blankets get made.”
Bringing people together on that special weekend feels extra meaningful for Jalaja, who found one of the best parts of being a volunteer leader is inspiring others, especially young people, to realize the difference they can make in their own community.
“You feel like you are helping carry on the legacy [toward] equality. If you help others, then I think they’re going to be helpful to somebody else. You build community that way.”
It’s the community that keeps Jalaja volunteering on her own, now that Harsha is off to college. After being welcomed from India by opportunities for education and work in this country, she focuses on what she can do to give back and help transform people’s lives in similar ways.
That’s not always easy, she acknowledges, especially when poverty and inequality can feel like such overwhelming problems to solve. But she has also seen firsthand the power of small gestures, especially for children growing up in an uncertain world — the reassurance of having a sharp pencil to draw with or the pride of reading a book of your own.
“There’s no such thing as no time,” she said, describing how easy Hands On Greater Portland makes it to find causes you care about and select projects to fit your schedule. “You can give whatever you have, even if it’s a short one-hour project. Just imagine the joy you could bring!"
“If everybody does their little part of giving back, it’s going to improve our society and improve the community we’re living in."
“Plus, you come back so cheerful, it’s unbelievable,” she grinned.
United Way's volunteer program, Hands-On Greater Portland, can help connect you to volunteer projects all year round, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Find your next volunteer project today.