Volunteering vicissitudes: making it work with your help

The first volunteering that I ever did was as a candy striper at a “hospital” in London, Ontario.  I put the word hospital in parentheses because it was actually an institution just across the street from St. Joseph’s hospital but, as one of the staff said, patients may have walked in but they didn’t walk out.  Once a week I’d don a sweet, pink striped apron and head off to help with serving dinner.  There was one woman in particular – and I’m afriad I just don’t remember her name – that I liked to spend time with.  She – let’s call her Zelda – thought she was in the kitchen sink.  Yup, you read that right, in the kitchen sink.  When I’d arrive in her room she’d be huddled in a corner of her bed, skinny hips pressed up against the bars, and she’d be muttering herself about all of the dishes that needed washing and how crowded she was and how she wished someone would get those big saucepans out of her shins.  I’d stand by her bedside, reach over, and move more arms and hands as if I was washing dishes and moving them from the sink to the drainer nearby.  Slowly she’d relax and stretch out, and she was always so grateful that I’d come and cleaned up the mess for her.  I wondered then, and as I write about this I wonder again, what her life had been like.  The images that we conjure up and sometimes lchoose to “live in” say a lot, I think, about our day-to-day experiences in living. 

I also spent a lot of time in my high-school years organizing a youth group that mostly did volunteer work.  London was a kind of overgrown cow-town (an expression I learned in Amarillo, Texas when I was passing through one day long ago) and being a part of a small Jewish community meant that there were really no eligible boys for me to date because I’d grown up with all of the Jewish boys and among them – and if you’re reading this and married to a Jewish man who grew up in London I apologize for what might seem like a brush-off – there was certainly nobody that seemed even vaguely pursuable.  So, although this group in other locations was a fairly social organization, in London – in my time – it focused on volunteerism and community action.  This is really where I began to develop some organizational skills that have actually always served me quite well.  We went to an orphanage on Sunday afternoons and took children out for a few hours of play in a nearby park.  The kids were always so happy to see us and it was fun being able to give them some fun. 

When I was an undergrad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I volunteered as an English tutor for a high school program.  By this time – the late 60s – the importance of being able to speak English was gaining and working with those young people was really rewarding.  I started to learn something about how to teach, and, although I didn’t realize it until many years later, I was starting down the ESL road.  Again, a great and satisfying experience.

Once I became a teacher the focus – and the location – of my volunteer work started to change.  I travelled to China with an organization called Trees for Life, a Canadian non-profit organization that has helped over 1 million children in schools around the world learn about the important role trees play in maintaining the earth’s balance. I travelled in and out of Kosovo with the International Children’s Institute (ICI) over the period of a year, working with schools in Prishtina to help develop a sort of psychological first-aid program for teachers to use in working with chlidren who have been traumatized by war.  Unfortunately, the need for this kind of work just goes on and on.  ICI also developed the Building Bridges program  for helping newcomers get settled in Ontario schools.  A few years ago I spent some of my vacation time volunteering in Bartica, Guyana with an organization called Ve’ahavta  ; to reach Bartica a had to take one long and several short flights, a dusty 2-hour bus ride, and a 50 mile boat journey up the Essequibo River.  I worked with young children running a sort of drop-in summer school literacy program for 1 week and then spent another week doing teacher training during the day and painting a mural in the local hospital at night.  One of the teachers who came bright and early every morning had to paddle himself 2 hours downriver each morning and evening and yet they were all so eager to learn that it was just a delight to work with them.  The mural didn’t turn out badly either.  Best was when, on one of my calls home, I found out that there was a power failure in Toronto and there we were in Bartica with no glass in the windows and cows wandering through the school but … we had power.

And then there’s the more sedate volunteering.  I was on the education committee of the Peterborough Centennial Museum and Archives and the Peterborough Race Relations committee when I was teaching at Trent University , where I also chaired the President’s Committee on Rights, Respect and Responsibility.  I’ve sat on synagogue boards and drop-in centre boards, countless ad-hoc committees, and a range of school volunteer activities from face-painting at spring picnics to leading a 200-voice choir.  I’ve given numerous workshops and plenary addresses on topics related to social justice in education and living together in peace.  Yes, I’ve been busy!

I could tell a story about pretty much every volunteer activity I’ve been involved with.  The people I’ve met have immeasurably enriched my life.  I still chat online with my adopted sister – Rahime – in Kosovo, and by the good graces of the internet I’ve been able to stay a part of their lives and they’ve been able to stay a part of mine.  There have been nights of sleeping with one ear awake to hear the sound of water dripping from the faucet in the bathtub which meant that if I got up quickly enough and ran to the bathroom I could wash my hair – albeit in cold water – before the water stopped running again.  There have been live guppies swimming in a fishbowl that I thought was a table decoration into somebody reached out with chopsticks, snafooed one of the little squirmy things, and plunged it into boiling broth.  I’ve even eaten deep-friend scorpion.  Once.  Once is enough.

So here’s what I’ve learned about volunteering.  I’d rather actually “do” something than sit on a board and talk about doing something.  I want to spend my time making life better for somebody else, pitching in and taking care of my fellow travellers on this journey and not just attending planning meetings and strategic planning sessions.  I want to find ways to capitalize on what I know, the skills I’ve developed, and the strengths I can offer others.   I’ve also learned that far too often volunteering can be an empty experience; hours spent waiting around doing little, no direction, being asked to do work that doesn’t in any way draw on talents and skills.  Just yesterday I spent hours talking to two very wise women I know who have retired in the past couple of years. There were lots of stories of volunteer experiences that went south and were very discouraging. So, what I really need is your advice on finding interesting places to keep doing volunteer work.

Please submit a comment if you’ve got any advice about:

  • questions to ask when volunteering that will let me know whether or not this will be a good experience
  • good volunteer experience you’d like to share
  • suggestions for interesting volunteer opportunities

Ghandi said “Live as though you will die tomorrow…learn as though you will live forever.”   I think that’s good advice.  You can be a part of that learning for me.  Thanks in advance.

I was just reading about a recent US study that shows that over 30% of baby boomers – that would be my generation and perhaps yours – spend time volunteering.  I’m hoping that means that lots of you reading this posting will have some wisdom to share.


2 responses to “Volunteering vicissitudes: making it work with your help

  1. A volunteer experience that I remember fondly is being part of a student workcamp at the University of Rome. The archeology department was tidying up Etruscan tombs. The tents were fine; the food was fine. But the organization was very improvisational. Each morning after breakfast the guy in charge would stretch and scratch his head and say, “Dove andiamo oggi? Where will we dig today?” Forty years later I remember the day they forgot to pick up my team for lunch. The positive side was there wasn’t much in the way of an hierarchy; I got a chance to spend an afternoon with a scalpel and a paint brush clearing away the dust from an ancient Etruscan lady’s bony hand. After supper we hiked around the hills looking for symmetrical mounds that might be unexplored graves. So a little organizational chaos can lead to interesting opportunities.
    Since I’ve retired I’ve volunteered for Women’s College Hospital by programming a stage for the Expo area of Women’s Health Matters in January. Working outside of education agrees with me….there is certainly plenty of angst in health care especially around the Sunnybrook/Women’s merger and divorce. I understand the issues but it isn’t gut-wrenching for me in the way losses in education in the Harris years are.
    It’s very hard to tell in advance how a volunteer experience will work for you. Setting a time limit for how long you will work at a project helps. It’s easier to withdraw if something is not your cup of tea if you’ve agreed at the beginning that you’ll do something for X number of weeks.

  2. Sylvia Bereskin

    That’s very good advice; to set a timeframe for volunteer work at the beginning so that there’s enough time to see if it “works” and a graceful exit plan if it doesn’t. Thanks Jane.

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