Volunteering. Until the last couple of years, the word was anathema to me. Volunteering was work without pay. Why would I want to do that? It seemed the height of foolishness.
I had never been one of those people who wanted to rack up brownie points in any area except academics, where I just LOVED that extra credit. My family was very oriented towards valuing education above practically everything else, and I fell into step with that.
I did do quite well academically, becoming the valedictorian of my high school class (not without controversy–lol), although there were only 233 people in the class. I still felt quite accomplished, especially since I was also a National Merit Scholar on the basis of merit, not need. Loved those SATs. Whizzed through undergrad with barely a ruffled feather. Took the LSATs on a dare, because I was a star of my university’s English Lit. department and a friend of my friend was a star of the Comp. Lit. department, a deadly rivalry both in the academic world and in gaining the affections of our mutual friend. Ms. Comp Lit took a study course to prepare for the LSATs. I signed up late and just showed up. I aced the test, besting her by 200 points. She had to take it again later. [I must add here, though, that she went on to have a very successful career in the law as a magistrate.]
So…I felt accomplished. I felt like I had done what needed doing. Anything more that might be required of me would necessitate that I be paid.
So I worked.
Until I became disabled and could work no more.
My self-esteem took a major hit.
For years I cast around for some job I could perform and be paid for. But nothing worked. I was indeed no longer able to be a working woman.
My health, physical, mental and emotional, continued to worsen. Pain [see my earlier post entitled PAIN] dominated my existence and made it impossible for me to do the things I liked, much less things I didn’t like.
I was at a real impasse in my life. Life like this was not worth living.
I stewed around this way for several years. If I could have just died without doing anything about it, I would have welcomed that. I saw no point in living.
At church, annoying people kept mentioning the value and rewards and importance of volunteering. I was sure that this did not apply to me. I was a special case, a basket case at that. I was not cut out to be a volunteer. It was as plain as day.
I was so stuck and so miserable and my pain just kept getting worse and worse. Lying in bed, even when reading a great novel or a history of a fascinating era, just made me feel worse.
So I started thinking. What if there were ways that I could volunteer that fit within my capabilities? I tried some things and failed. For example, shelving books at my much-beloved library caused me incredibly bad pain because of my arthritic hands and my fibromyalgia. For awhile, I let that serve as a lesson that indeed I COULD NOT volunteer!
I went back to the dark side.
Still, people kept mentioning things at church that sounded a bit intriguing. My first reaction was to stop going to church so that I wouldn’t be bothered by these messages. But I like church. My church is progressive, inter-generational, racially diverse and comprised of more than 50% of folks who self-identify as LGBTQIA. I like learning about the Biible, especially from a different perspective than my most recent church experience, which had been evangelical. Nice people there at the evangelical place, and they kept saying I had good questions, but the problem was that they didn’t have good answers, imho. So learning about Christianity from a progressive viewpoint is very stimulating for me. I want to keep doing that
So do I have to volunteer to be in the good graces of my good church? At first I felt that way, and I even felt paranoid that other people were thinking that I didn’t do enough in the way of service. Both those propositions are not necessarily false.
Our church has been providing space for a Freedom School for the last 6 years, which coincides with the amount of time I’ve been a member there. So I kept hearing about it. But I concluded that it wasn’t for me. And indeed in earlier years my health has been so bad that I really doubt I could have been of much assistance.
Last year, though, I took the plunge and signed up to read with the youngest kids (the program is for kids in grades 1 – 12) and eat lunch with them afterwards one day a week. A very small commitment of time.
Well, I did do Freedom School last year until my health really worsened and I had to drop out for yet another surgery which had yet more complications.
But all winter I’ve been feeling like I needed to make a sea change in my life. I needed to do something of value, however small or unacknowledged. I didn’t want to buy into that claptrap of believing that it is enough that I exist, that I only have to matter to me. I feel it’s necessary to bring value to other people’s lives. And once that thought/feeling/belief really gelled within me, I realized that I needed to find ways to help others, whether it be church members, children, the elderly, whoever, in any way that I could handle.
Once I came to this bedrock realization, I started to feel better! Even without yet implementing plans to volunteer, the clear intention to do so was giving me much-needed psychic support.
The idea of Freedom School came back to me. It is something I’ve always liked hearing about at church (even though it’s not a religious-affiliated program; it’s merely housed in our church building) and I had enjoyed my few days of volunteering with the kids last year before I fell apart. Freedom School is an outgrowth of Freedom Summer, which took place 51 years ago in the midst of the civil rights movement of that time. i remember Freedom Summer. I am that old.
So: Freedom Schools, now administered by the Children’s Defense Fund. They are a free full-day summer program for kids (“scholars”), running 6 or 8 weeks each summer and focusing on literacy, personal development and social justice . Free nutritious and tasty meals and snacks are provided for the kids. These are values I can really get behind.
So this spring I approached the volunteer coordinator again, the same one that I felt I had let down last year by stopping volunteering way before the program ended, illness or no illness. I told him I was interested in volunteering again, this time for two days a week instead of just one.
Then I also signed on to volunteer at Comfest, Columbus, Ohio’s Community Festival that is a Party With A Purpose. Held since 1972, Comfest started out as a small social activism and free music festival, with everything being done by volunteers without any corporate sponsorship. Even the musicians donate their time. I had been an organizer in the 80’s and had attended as a festival-goer back in the 70’s, but had really lost touch with the whole thing. But I wanted to be a part of it and, let’s face it, I wanted one of the great T-shirts that you can only get by volunteering. : ) So I signed up for a Saturday afternoon shift in the air-conditioned Comfest Museum, where I could also sit down and rest some of my aches and pains.
And actually, the week before Comfest, I volunteered to help my church staff a booth at Columbus Gay Pride.
So what’s up with all this volunteering? I’ll tell you:
IT MAKES ME FEEL BETTER!
That’s the secret to volunteering. If you like you can look at it as something you do for yourself that just happens to benefit others. Put that way, I don’t resent one bit that I don’t get paid for my time and effort or indeed get reimbursed for items I contribute to the cause. Besides, Jesus would like this.
And a bonus is that I’ve met a number of great young people with whom I’m building relationships. As an older woman who lives alone (with four cats) growing in relationship is just what the doctor (or pastor) ordered. It’s good stuff.
You might want to try it yourself, if you haven’t already…