Civic duty and volunteerism were concepts I embraced growing up. I sang at nursing homes when I was little, picked up litter, “adopted” grandparents in hospice care and collected canned goods. I was a Girl Scout, a Pathfinder, an earner of praise for being so good and so earnest. When I was 12, I even had tea with the state governor’s wife because of my do-gooding ways.
Lest you nominate me for sainthood, I lived a secret life inside. The people I helped weren’t always nice or clean or even grateful. I didn’t seem to be changing the world in the ways I had imagined. In my mind, I was a rescuer, a saver, a changer. I was able to raise my sense of personal value this way. It was all about me and when it didn’t proceed in the grandiose way I had envisioned, I became a little bitter.
The irony in failing to comprehend why people weren’t grateful was that I had been the recipient of charity as a child and I hated it. I hated being so poor that we couldn’t pay for food. I hated it that the girls at school would make fun of my weird hand-me-down shoes. I hated the looks of pity when we had to ask for a place to stay because of an alcoholic rage at home. I was afraid we’d be found out during those times when we didn’t have water or electricity or a flush toilet.
Many years ago, I helped during the holidays at a local shelter for abused women and children. I embraced this wholeheartedly, filled with wondrous plans to make the shelter a warm and welcoming place. These were my people – these people were trying to escape a life I’d left behind as a child.
We cooked a holiday dinner and helped sort presents for the kids. I did some cleaning in the dilapidated kitchen. I overheard conversations. Six kids later and still engaged in a soap opera with him. Bent on getting her next fix. Insisting that she didn’t need to do no chores. Smoking with a kid on her hip. I was young and judgmental – these were not my people.
I didn’t last long there. I also did short stints at nursing homes, depressed by the death of every adopted resident, overwhelmed by institutional smells, trying to convince myself that what I was doing mattered, but feeling like it really didn’t.
So often I read about the amazingly difficult work people are doing under miserable conditions with challenging populations. Surely their idealism was shed after two weeks with no shower or shoveling gravelly hard ditches for drainage or when they were cursed at for limiting amounts of food distribution. Some of these volunteers will do this kind of work for their entire lives – in the trenches, with little external reward.
Oh, but self-righteous, poor me. I was the worst kind of volunteer. I had expectations that gratitude would be my reward. That I would be seen as someone of value and import because I was doing good.
Years later, I’ve been through all the permutations of volunteerism, arriving at a milquetoast, middle class version. Most recently, I took a leadership role in my daughter’s school parent teacher organization. It’s a large school with a majority reduced lunch population. Needs are high for supplies and programs and volunteers. I thought, until this week, that I’d put aside idealism and that wretched volunteer of my younger years.
I’ve written letters to protest a school program change, tried to recruit other volunteers, attempted to connect with other organization leaders, addressed a school gymnasium full of kids and teachers, and done fundraising. I felt strong and decisive and filled with self-righteous zeal (the kind that I generally mock). I spent most of the week outside of my comfort zone.
The response has been a lot of silence, some bureaucratic mumblings and tepid conciliation. I felt defeated and deflated and discouraged. I had expectations that I wasn’t acknowledging and so disappointment caught me off guard. I was that volunteer again – seething with anger, swearing that I’ll never volunteer to do this or that again.
My grownup self has tempered my reaction. There is satisfaction to be found in being the kind of the person I want to be – someone who is willing to jump in, have uncomfortable conversations, take risks and recognize that not everything is going to turn out rainbows and puppies. On occasion, I just have to deal with that other person – the one who wants fulfillment and reward and most definitely, tangible results.
I still believe with all my heart that an individual can make a difference. It would be arrogant to believe that I can change the plight of humans with my small actions. But with all the need in the world and the fortunate life I live now, it would be unforgivable if I didn’t even try.