Monthly Archives: May 2015

One Perspective: The Personal Benefits of Volunteer Service

Olivia Richardson Author Olivia Richardson is a Youth Volunteer at Sully Historic Site. She will be attending Princeton University in fall 2015, and she used her volunteer experience at Sully as part of her university application process. 

Princeton requests that applicants write an essay of about 500 words constructed around a theme selected from a list the school suggests to the applicant. Using the theme as a starting point, the applicant is instructed to “write about a person, event, or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world.” This is the theme Olivia selected:

“’Princeton in the Nation’s Service’ was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded for the University’s 250th anniversary to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton’s president from 1902–1910.”

The Park Authority is grateful to Olivia for sharing her application essay with us.

I was taught about service by my parents, who both strongly believe in the value of giving your time to a cause. Both came from humble beginnings, and they have always instilled in me a sense of compassion, a strong work ethic, and a sense of responsibility to my community. More importantly, they taught me through example the power of service and the impact I can have through small acts. But an old historic house represents a place where I learned first-hand the importance of giving back to my community.

I first started volunteering when I was nine, teaching 18th century games to young children at Sully Historic Site, a historic house museum in Fairfax County, Virginia. I was awkward, shy, timid, and above all, completely unsure of myself. Uncomfortable period dress made me stand out when I was so used to blending in. But the excitement I saw when other children learned about a new game or activity made it worthwhile. It was during this time that I realized how much service truly meant to me, and I was determined to serve in any way possible.

An opportunity arose a couple years later to interpret slave life at the museum. The damp slave quarter was very different from the warm fields I was used to, and I seemed to be the only young person talking about slave life at Sully. I spent many hours memorizing my information, which opened my eyes to the importance of telling the story of the enslaved. I was giving a voice to the slaves who had been neglected because it is a history that is uncomfortable and difficult for some people. I then took it upon myself to educate as many people as I could on the subject. Sometimes the slave quarter would become packed with adults, nerve-racking but exciting at the same time. I became more comfortable with talking in front of crowds as I realized that presenting was a skill that came naturally to me. Slave interpretation led to the opportunity to learn and teach visitors about slave medicine. After receiving a few new packets of information, I got straight to work, reading up on all of these fascinating medical procedures. I was hooked.

My presentation on slave medicine went so well I was able to do more programs about home remedies and general historical medical interpretation. My presentation went from being about a minute with assistance, to full-fledged discussions where I led a section of the program, something I would have previously never thought possible. I became more confident in my ability to teach, and my 18th century clothes were becoming a lot more comfortable. No longer was I a timid, shy person, rather a strong, confident historical interpreter.

Even as I served long hours, Sully gave me so much more than I could ever give. I was able to learn how to speak in public, with people of all ages and backgrounds. Where I used to be timid, I would actively go up to people and engage them. I was able to share my love of history and medicine, and I started to carry myself better. With my newfound self-confidence, I found myself succeeding more in school, becoming more confident in my academic abilities and able to take on more leadership roles.

Sully for me has been a place where I could grow and become a more confident young adult. Many of my hours have gone undocumented, because I wanted to give without receiving anything in return. I enjoyed that experience so much I found myself helping others in many other ways, from tutoring to mission work through my church. Service for me has become something that I do every day, almost without realizing it. Service can be volunteering at a 1794 historic site, but it can also be simply extending a hand to someone who needs it that day.


Sully Historic Site, located at 3650 Historic Sully Way,  Chantilly, Virginia,  is the 1794 home of Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia’s first representative to Congress.