Volunteering: Part I Finding a Good Fit

For a large portion of my adult life I have been an active community volunteer. Thousands of my life’s hours have been spent volunteering!  Most likely my earliest volunteer experiences occurred when we moved cross-country and I felt the need to immerse myself in a new community where we knew no one.  Due to some helpful neighbors, I found myself involved in our school’s PTO before my eldest son even attended kindergarten. For first year, I attended meetings and helped with what I could. This included making large games, some of which are still in use today, for the school’s fundraising festival. Of course, my very handy husband helped with the construction of mini-golf and another carnival type game. And, I remember working at the chicken-Q.

After that initial year, I moved into a Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) Board role as Secretary and served for two years. I had my third child during that time and remember bringing him to meetings in his nip-nap. This role introduced me to some of the frustrations of volunteering. PTO’s are fraught with politics and individual agendas. Invariably, there are one or two very strong personalities that either run the show or want to believe they are running the show.  My most irritating revelation about this occurred when I was co-chair of a gift basket raffle that was being held (and is still held today) for the first time. Our illustrious PTO leader wanted to micro-manage how we organized the raffle, what contributions were made by the classrooms, and even our communication with staff. She was not even on our committee! Out of this experience grew some personal guidelines, which I later shared in a bout of frustrated conversation with the PTO President. 1) If someone volunteers, give them space to complete the job – do not micro manage! I am a person that completes what I commit to doing and do it well! 2) Do not commit if you do not have the time, and 3) Do not commit if you are doing it to reap some kind of glory for there will surely be someone else who will grab the credit. Some other guidelines that are useful are to: 4) find something you are passionate about to donate your time. The hours go faster and you are helping a cause you believe in supporting.  This could be animal rights, environmental causes, athletic boosters, band boosters, or any number of any other interests. 5) Most importantly, I learned that if the volunteer role you possess for a group does not go well, makes you uncomfortable, and just leads to frustration, you need to find some other way to volunteer. 6) And finally, but also of utmost importance, volunteers MUST feel appreciated or they will cease being YOUR volunteer.

After learning PTO was not for me, I became a classroom volunteer and did that each year right up through 2014 when I was assisting at our middle school for an ELA teacher we came to know.  It is rare to be a volunteer at a middle school!  From the start of pre-k for my oldest through 8th grade for my youngest, I spent 14 years in various classrooms and was at school 2-4 times a week to help teachers with small group work.  My school volunteering continued through this past June when an after school garden club I led ended its thirteen year run!

During this earlier period, I also realized I had suppressed a creative side of my personality and started a craft group at our local Children’s Museum. This also helped me to get out of the house without my infant and toddler for several hours each week. For a period of three years, I prepared a craft for visitors to make in the museum’s “Reuseum” – a space that utilized donated items to create “treasures” for the children to take home. It was thematic and seasonal – something, I fondly remember. But, my point here is that I asked to volunteer at the museum by starting that group. It was a better fit for me than being a docent or at the “desk”.  And, they let me do it!  Although, at the time I did not realize that this position set me up for being assertive enough to start several other groups at our school, one district-wide group, and also gave me the confidence to attend Master Gardener Volunteer training sessions that would enable me to volunteer on a wider-community level in the future.

These early experiences were almost twenty years ago. I have continued to be a volunteer for many groups and donated many hours of my time. By doing so, I have been a volunteer role model for my children. Was I uncomfortable at first? Absolutely. Were all the experiences positive? As you read previously, no, they were not. Did I continue to volunteer? Yes.

Hopefully, my boys have seen that it is fairly easy to volunteer. They have witnessed the joy I experienced from the groups I organized such as Evergreen Garden Club, Writer’s Circle, Book Clubs, and time I spent on educating the community in my role as a Master Gardener Volunteer. They also saw frustration and irritation during my time as a co-leader of our Parent Advocacy group for local Talented and Gifted students.  My boys knew when I have not felt appreciated as a volunteer. They also saw me persist years beyond the onset of irritation just because I believed in or loved what I was doing and the irritation was extraneous. Through groups I have led,  I have demonstrated my belief that clear communication is paramount when working with volunteers.  They have witnessed me work through misunderstandings, miscommunication, and feelings of disregard to continue to be a volunteer.  My boys have seen me sad when a long time volunteer activity ends.  Through it all remains the feeling of joy you experience when you give of one’s self! It is not tangible, it is not monetary, but it is there and invaluable!

Today’s youth are expected to volunteer. But, this is tricky.  Very often they are volunteering to fulfill service hours for church or to meet requirements for membership in a group such as National Honor Society.  I am not all that sure that these requirements are imparting the true meaning of being a volunteer. For many, it is just checking a box or an item off their “list”, it is not giving of one’s time just because they want to do it or believe in the group/cause for which they are volunteering.

Yesterday, I volunteered with my youngest son for the school’s athletic booster club. He moaned and groaned but we went. I can understand that some of his reluctance was fear of the unknown. Has he volunteered before? Yes. Has he volunteered in this capacity before? No. This was a new experience. But, I saw as we were there – especially after his friends arrived and he saw other friends volunteering in different roles at the same event – the veil of reluctance lifted.  If only a little bit, it lifted. Yesterday, my son supported a group that supports him and his activities as a student athlete. It is important to give back. This is the lesson I hope to impart.

Giving back is easier when you do it for a group you believe in, do it with friends, experience a well-organized activity with clear communication, and feel valued for giving of yourself and your time. With the exception of clear communication regarding the event venue, all of these other pieces were in place yesterday.  Hopefully, the experience was “harmless” enough to bear repeating for my son.  I know I repeated it many times before I was totally comfortable in my volunteer skin. Comfort level will increase with maturity, too. As adults, we need to role model and encourage volunteering in a positive light, as well as something you do because you care – not because you have to do it.  Only time will tell if I have been successful!


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