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Jérôme Mireault/The Globe and Mail

What inspires people to give? And what do they get out of it? We asked readers to tell us about people who make a real difference in their community, then asked experts in the science of altruism how their generosity pays off for more than just those they set out to help.

Life for Mary Macnab is one disaster after another – and she that's the way she wants it.

Now 72 and retired after a long career as a human-resources consultant for the province of Nova Scotia, she is a volunteer emergency responder with the Canadian Red Cross. In the past 10 years, she has been deployed to help people displaced in the aftermath of hurricanes Ivan and Katrina, which devastated large swaths of Alabama, Florida and Louisiana.

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She says her time in the southern states was harrowing and hard work – "physically, mentally, and emotionally very draining." But the call for help could not be ignored, she explains, "because the sense of satisfaction that came from being able to help those people, during such a very dark time in their lives, was simply overwhelming."

As well as working with the Red Cross, she puts in a weekly shift at Feed Nova Scotia, whose Halifax warehouse distributes supplies to 150 food banks across the province, and volunteers with Immigration Settlement and Integration Services (ISIS), a support organization for new Canadians.

For ISIS, she conducts mock interviews with newcomers who are trying to find employment, often with significant language barriers. "We tape it so they can look back and see how they did on it."

But by far the biggest chunk of her time is devoted to the Red Cross. Last June, she was a key member of a team that set up a call centre in Nova Scotia to handle the deluge of panicked telephone traffic during Alberta's devastating floods.

"We worked two weeks on that and had thousands of calls. I played a human resource role, booking volunteers for shifts and looking after them while they were on the phones," says Ms. Macnab, who also worked on flood relief closer to home last year when the St. John River inundated Perth-Andover, N.B.

She teaches emergency-response courses when not at the scene of a disaster, and considers volunteering a duty – even when working full-time, she felt a constant tug to do more.

"Life has been really good to me, and I always wanted to give back to my community," she says, adding that all she wants in return is "the satisfaction of knowing I'm helping people who need a hand.

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"That's not very dramatic, I know, but it's that simple. It's just a wonderful feeling to do something for people who don't know where to turn."

Positive outcomes: Ms. Macnab may volunteer to help others, but research shows that doing so may benefit her as well. Volunteering boosts people's self-esteem, helps them feel competent and build relationships, fosters happiness, satisfaction with life and can reduce depression. The more you give to others, the more you get in return.

– The Canadian Positive Psychology Association

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