What Makes a Good Volunteer?

Firefighter with police officer
Keeping Kids with ASD Safe from Victimization
June 8, 2016
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So you want to be a volunteer.  Maybe you want to help out at one of the hundreds of recreational events POAC and other non-profit agencies have every year for children with autism and you wonder what you need.  Well here is what is required of you:

A Desire to make a difference.

At the heart of it, the desire to volunteer is the desire to make a difference.  One of my favorite quotes is from Mahatma Gandhi  “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Volunteers live that ideal by putting into action that belief.  They see a need and step up to do their part.  I always joke with my volunteers that once they volunteer at an event I own them.  That they will come back year after year and often get friends and family to join in on the fun.  The volunteers get as much from these events as do the children they are there to help.

“Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness.  It is not attained through self-gratification but rather through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” – Helen Keller…


Patience is a skill that took me years to develop under the direct supervision of my son Christopher.  He has taught me that children with autism and other special needs may operate under their own time table.  So you are volunteering at a surfing event and can’t wait to get one of the children into the water to share your love of the ocean with them.  You quickly find that this particular child is not ready to go into the water and spends the next 30 minutes playing with you in the sand and never even makes it into the surf.  You may walk this child back to their mother with a nagging feeling that you somehow let them down by not getting them onto a surf board.  That feeling quickly vanishes as you look at the mom who has tears in her eyes as she thanks you so much for playing with her son.  She explains he has never liked the beach and for him to just play and interact with you means the world to her.


So you wanted to dress up like Elmo or help the children down the inflatable slide and you find yourself instead carrying cases of water or stuck behind a hot grill for three hours.  That happens to the best of us.  Please remember there are no small jobs, that to have a great event that the families will remember always- there are a hundred different things that need to come together and the event could not happen without everyone pitching in.  And truth be told- it is often hotter inside an Elmo costume than stuck behind a burning grill.  It also smells much better behind the grill. 😉

A smile

One of the first things I tell my volunteers is that their number one job is to be a cheerleader for the day.  That for many of our families this may be the one event all year that they get to go out as a  family.  Many in our community feel very isolated and may feel a sense of apprehension in attending a public event with so many people.   It is our job to make them feel welcome and accepted for who they are, because they truly are great.   We have had over 1,700 family recreational events over the years for the autism community. In all these years and all these events the overriding sense of gratitude and joy from the families is not reserved for the rides, music, food or giveaways, it is always reserved for the volunteers.  We have received thousands of comments about our incredible volunteers.  The smiles and joy that you give and will receive back in triplicate will last a lifetime.  Just four simple traits are all you need to impact a child forever.  

  • A desire to make a difference.
  • Patience.
  • Flexibility.
  • A Smile.  Don’t worry if you don’t come with a smile, we know you will definitely leave with one.

We cannot do what we do without the incredible support of our volunteers.  So spread the word and we will see you at our next event.



Gary Weitzen
Gary Weitzen
Gary Weitzen is the Executive Director of POAC Autism Services, which is the largest provider of free autism training and events in the state of New Jersey. Mr. Weitzen is a certified law enforcement instructor with the New Jersey Police Training Commission, member of the National Association of Search and Rescue, and serves as a Special State Officer on the New Jersey Governor’s Council for Medical Research and Treatment of Autism. In addition to his duties at POAC, for the past fifteen years he has worked for an autism program as a teacher of life skills to adults with autism. Mr. Weitzen, has served as the New Jersey representative for Unlocking Autism, and Vice President of Princeton Autism Technology, and comes to POAC with 20 years of experience in the risk management field. The Weitzen family story was featured with the Doug Flutie family on the country’s first screening tool for early identification and intervention of autism, First Signs. He has appeared on virtually every major network and local news station as an expert on autism and has given presentations to tens of thousands of people across New Jersey. Mr. Weitzen’s son, Christopher has autism and he has been a passionate advocate of children and adults with autism for close to two decades.