Joan Nichols providing chair massage outdoors at volunteer event
Joan Nichols providing chair massage outdoors at volunteer event

How Volunteer, Service Work Changed One Massage Therapist's Career

By Massage Today, Editorial Staff
November 1, 2021

How Volunteer, Service Work Changed One Massage Therapist's Career

By Massage Today, Editorial Staff
November 1, 2021

Joan Nichols was working a corporate job but thinking about how she wanted to do something bigger and more meaningful when her friend, who had just started massage therapy school, told her how much she was enjoying it. “I had been receiving massage therapy because of a shoulder and neck issue,” she remembers. “Massage helped so much I thought perhaps it could be something worthwhile for me to do.”

The rest, as with so many stories of how massage therapists get started in the profession, is history.

Today, Nichols has more than two decades invested in a profession she loves, where she’s found a calling that helped her connect with a larger community that includes her clients, other massage professionals—and her joy in volunteering and service work.

Volunteer Experiences Help Hone Leadership Skills

After graduating in 1998, Nichols immediately went to work in private practice at a local state college where she worked with faculty and athletes. “After seeing the effect massage therapy had on my clients, I knew I had found my gift and motivation to help others,” she says.

That motivation turned out to be a driving force for Nichols in more ways than one, who decided early on that volunteering would be a cornerstone of her career. “I was asked to come to a local AMTA Chapter meeting,” she recalls. “It was a good place to network and be with other people in the profession. They needed volunteers in different committees, so I asked what I could do to help.”

Nichols found the answer to how she could help in a variety of volunteer positions with AMTA—including as the association’s President in 2018—as well as organizations outside the massage therapy profession, including The American Cancer Society and The Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation for Children, both of which are near and dear to her heart.

Elected Georgia Chapter President in 2006, Nichols remembers how special the AMTA 2006 National Convention was because it was located in Georgia. “I was a brand new chapter president and lucky the chapter board and committees had some amazing volunteers,” she remembers, when asked to name some of the highlights of her volunteer career. “What looked so overwhelming at first came together.”

That experience was only topped by 2018, when Nichols was AMTA National President. “From the moment I arrived at the national convention it was like I was in a dream world,” she says. “AMTA was celebrating its 75th anniversary. Bert Jacobs, CEO of Life is Good, was our keynote speaker. When I was standing on the stage about to give my speech the energy and love that I felt washed over me like a tidal wave.”

Nichols credits her volunteer work for teaching her how to be a leader and put together community events that help promote the benefits of massage to different client demographics—like elderly clients, athletes and people managing both chronic and acute conditions.

But Nichols doesn’t just volunteer with the massage therapy profession. The first Relay for Life Nichols did for the American Cancer Society was organized while she was the community events coordinator for the massage program at the local massage school where she was teaching. “Myself and several of the other instructors put together a large booth and had the students doing chair massage on the different team members walking or running the track,” she explains.

Two years later, Nichols transferred to her hometown’s Relay for Life to become part of the event leadership team, where she coordinated a tent for cancer survivors to receive massage. “The event is for them,” she says. By then, too, Nichols was a cancer survivor herself, so had a personal experience that made providing massage therapy meaningful.

Every year, Nichols also volunteers with The Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation for Children and has for 30-plus years. “It’s been a family affair,” she says. “We help set up the event venue, help Santa shop for toys, stuff gift bags, wrap presents and help the children with making crafts. It’s rewarding to see the children come in with their families and see all the decorations, games, craft table, gift bags and presents.”

The Uplifting Power of Community

If you ask Nichols about some of the challenges she’s encountered in her time volunteering, she’ll tell you a story of how in 2012 she was newly diagnosed with colon cancer at the same time she was running to be re-elected to AMTA’s National Board of Directors. “I had to have surgery and was at home recovering when I found out I hadn’t been re-elected,” she says. “I felt useless and defeated.”

Those feelings are understandable from someone who’d spent so much time giving back to the massage profession, as well as in other service work. And though Nichols had no plans of stopping, she’s quick to remember how some of her friends and other professional colleagues took her to lunch. “During this luncheon, these amazing people told me my journey was not over. I was still valuable to the association and the massage profession,” she recalls. “This time together changed the trajectory of my life and my volunteerism in AMTA. I will be forever thankful for that day. The encouragement from my peers made all the difference.”

Her own community pulling her up when she was down reinforced for Nichols why giving back is so important, and she includes giving back to yourself in that advice. “Remember, you have to take care of yourself before you can give back to others,” she says. “Reach out to other therapists in your area and see what their expertise is and if you can act as referral sources for one another. Trade services with one another so you can get the health and well-being benefits of massage. I learned this lesson early in my career and it’s win-win.”

Navigating Your Own Volunteer Path: Finding What’s Meaningful to You

Some of Nichols’ top advice for massage therapists who want to find a way to volunteer within the profession speaks to her own love of the massage community and learning. “Massage therapists need to stay connected with their peers in the profession,” she encourages. “Also, learn the latest data and see what sparks your passion. Take different continuing education courses to see if there are techniques that resonate with you.”

Not all gestures need to be big, either, Nichols says. “If you can’t volunteer in person, ask if you can send emails or make phone calls to help with donations,” she adds. “If you can’t give your time, think about if you can donate money. Even the smallest donations can make a difference.”

Learn More About Client Demographics Who Can Benefit From Massage Therapy:

Working with veterans: The heroes we care for

How myoskeletal alignment techniques work on pain