Sarah (right) and her friend

Sarah (right) and her friend


As someone who volunteered for various tasks and is also interested in enlisting volunteers, I have been thinking about what is involved. In its usual form volunteering is not very difficult and can even be of benefit to the volunteer. One tries to make the position fun. To give an example, at the Lincoln Place Block Party last summer, I volunteered to get a gum machine from Met Food on Nostrand Avenue and man it for whoever wanted to see the workings of the machine (it releases a gumball that whirls around on a shoot and emerges at the bottom of the machine) or just get a large piece of gum. The job meant moving the machine to Lincoln Place, setting it up, and enticing people to use it. At the end of the afternoon, I had to put the machine on a hand truck and return it to Met Food. While I was working the machine I was with friends and family and it was wonderful to see the reaction of those using the machine, particularly the children. The afternoon was fun and cost me very little. I ended the day a bit sunburned and feeling good.

In another form volunteering can be even more of a two-way street; one can volunteer to get a paying job. One shows up, works hard, impresses the employer and hopes that person says something like, “I wish we had more like you.” If one plays one's cards right, eventually one ends up with a paid position. It is a form of probation, and after a suitable interval, if all goes well, one passes the test or else moves on.

However, in my own case, on another occasion, volunteering led to a more profound experience. Through some random connections, I found out about an organization called Little Brothers that organizes once-a-month visits to old people in “danger of isolation.” On my second visit with my partner Alisha, we found out the man who was supposed to drive us to our visiting site had not shown up. At just that moment, two members of the NYPD, Officers Matthews and Quinzue from Neighborhood Coordination in the 77th Precinct, volunteered their services. So Alisha and I climbed into the back of a police cruiser and headed to our destination. With the police, we visited various elderly women (one because of back pain did not feel up to it). Last of all, we visited a woman I shall call Willamina and her helper. Willamina seemed to be unhappy. It soon emerged that she had not slept the previous night. When asked the reason, she said she was worried about a friend we shall call Duke. He usually visited every day or two, but he had not come by for almost a month and Willamina was worried and became teary when she thought about it. Officer Matthews began to ask questions: What was his last name? When was he born? Where did he live? She punched the incomplete information she got into her phone and soon had Duke's identity, exact address, and also the fact that he had become confused about where he lived. A policeman had taken him home and identified a neighbor named Rose as a friend who watched out for him. The policeman had gotten her number and put it in the report. Officer Matthews called Rose, who told her that Duke was fine, she had seen him the day before. Willamina was transformed. She declared she was very happy and she looked it. Then, despite being confined to a wheel chair, despite the sleepless night, despite the fact she needed a walker to stand, despite that her sedentary life had left her somewhat overweight, she rose and did a beautiful dance, singing along with a song her helper put on for her, slowly moving her hips. It was unmistakably a dance of joy, and everyone was clapping and laughing and encouraging her. It was an unforgettable moment.

This experience made me curious about what other people had gotten out of volunteering their time and efforts. I first asked Methinee, a young woman born in Nagaland in India whose father is a Thai pastor. She helps me pick up litter on Saturday mornings on three blocks south of Eastern Parkway on Nostrand Avenue. The more I have gotten to know her, chatting with her as we pick up paper, bottles and chicken bones, the more I had learned to respect her. In her volunteering experience, what she gives is what she is good at. In her case she is a good musician – she plays the keyboard and sings very well. She takes pleasure in contributing the gifts she has in church. As she says, “I am blessed and glad to use my blessings for others.” And indeed, the exchange that takes place at church on many Sundays gives pleasure to the performer and those who listen. However, Methinee has also had difficult experiences. Her other duty at church is to tend the young children of the congregation who are excused early on in the service. Though Methinee seems an even tempered person, she admits that she can lose patience with the children. She controls herself, but she finds that persistent bad behavior can leave her seething inside, like a pot about to boil over. It is typical of Methinee that she takes this as an opportunity to improve herself. “I have to learn patience,” she says.

Asked about her deepest experiences in volunteering she tells about a bad one and a good one. Working with her father along the Burmese-Thai border with refugees who had fled the oppressive regime in Burma, Methinee was active in distributing food and digging wells. She found many of the refugees angry and abusive. The wanted to know if she thought she was someone special or better because she was helping them. They were proud and angry at someone who had the effrontery to give them assistance. Again Methinee was not angry in response but understanding; she saw the danger of being the volunteer who patronizes. It was also in Thailand that Methinee had what she thought was a casual conversation with an old woman, but when it was time to go, the woman broke down. She cried and hugged Methinee and eventually told her how she was so sad that Methinee was leaving. Perhaps the current parting reminded her of previous ones that were final and tragic. In any case the goodbye was an emotional one, moving for both parties.

Another volunteer I met through Little Brothers was Sarah, who, coming from a large family in Mississippi had gradually moved further and further north. She went to art school in Tennessee, then settled in Virginia and now lives in Bed-Stuy. From the time when she was a young woman, she had been quite religious, and as part of her religion had volunteered for good works. In Charlottesville she worked for Meals on Wheels for the home bound and was greatly moved by some of the people she met. She also hosted foreign exchange students either a female undergraduate or female graduate student, socializing with them and helping them adjust to life in America . Her job as a nanny for the last sixteen years has meant caring for other people's children, a position of great trust and responsibility and also at times has meant traveling with the family.

She came to Brooklyn at the urging of a good friend who made the connection with the first family for whom she acted as a nanny. She eventually volunteered for Little Brothers; she found out about it through her church, and through the organization met Ms. Francisca (not her real name), an elderly woman from Brazil who Sarah says is amazingly joyful and filled with life. Sarah began seeing her once a month according to the protocol of Little Brothers. Francisca had lived in her apartment for over fifty years; it was virtually an extension of herself, but the landlord wanted very much for her to be gone to get a market rate with a new renter. He offered her a large sum of money to leave but also refused to renew her lease and cut off her services. The woman had no desire to leave her longtime home. Sarah and Francisca became close friends and through Sarah, Little Brothers got the woman a pro bono lawyer who at least got her a new lease. Other problems remain, but Sarah now sees the woman way more often than once a month and the two have become close friends. The implied distance between volunteer and recipient has collapsed into a warm respectful human relationship in which Sarah does what a close friend should do, give every possible form of support and she gets back affection and gratitude.

Another person who has had a lot experience volunteering is Rachelle, an accomplished design person who has turned her experience with computers and art into a successful business. She grew up in Portland, Oregon with her parents and a younger brother. At the University of Arizona she found out about design and ended up majoring in it. Back in Portland she managed to get a job through persistently calling one design firm after another until she finally got work at an design firm. When that job fell through, she came to New York, got work here, and eventually founded her own company. If you get the impression of an independent and energetic person finding opportunities when they are far and few between, then you are right on target.

Rachelle has done a lot of volunteering. She has worked on various projects with a secular Jewish group, she has done mentoring of high school students through a professional design organization, she regularly gives her time to Creative Mornings and the Graphic Design Association to help organize events, and she has done a good deal of work abroad, twice for Habitat for Humanity in Zambia and Indonesia, and she put in a difficult week with an orphanage in Calcutta associated with programs organized by Mother Teresa.

Her motive for volunteering and the resulting experience have been quite varied. Weak preparation and organization caused by lack of forethought have led to some situations being awkward and frustrating. An event held to package meals for the hungry was over subscribed and many volunteers had little to do. Another event to canvass a housing project to let people know about food stamps seemed ill thought through. Rachelle could not see a good way to have a stranger knock on someone's door and ask if they would would like to know how to get food stamps. She has had good experiences mentoring a high school student interested in design, but a second attempt became a drawn out exercise in trying to set up meetings and having them fall through. Bad organization can make for a bad volunteering experience. The last thing one wants is to feel that one is doing something pointless and unproductive.

That has not been the case with Creative Morning, which puts on interesting lectures with the idea of creating a sense of community, and the American Institute of Graphic Design, which is already a community of people with a unifying interest. Rachelle is glad to help when she can and is repaid by interacting with her colleagues and other like-minded people. We have already noticed that volunteering can lead to a job; equally it it can lead to clients and finding out what is going on in the field. Such volunteering is a kind of investment.

Lastly there are Rachelle's experiences abroad. This type of volunteering can be a way of seeing the world, something Rachelle has done a great deal of. Also these experiences were challenging in demanding that Rachelle learn new skills and extend herself in ways that were quite difficult. While working for Habitat for Humanity, Rachelle learned to pour concrete; she was also working in remote rural areas with people who did not speak English. However, the joint work knocked down barriers. The children eventually overcame their shyness and attached themselves to her arms, legs and back, and grateful adults managed to express their gratitude and pleasure at working together even without a shared language. However, the closest bonds were those with fellow volunteers, many from other countries. Rachelle tells of having just visited a friend in Ireland whom she met at the orphanage, and there have been others.

The most difficult volunteer job for Rachelle was done while working in the orphanage in Calcutta. There were many children with cerebral palsy often deserted by parents who were not able to care for them. Rachelle held them, fed them, took care that they were clean, played with them – whatever was needed. In this scene of unrelieved suffering and pain with little hope for improvement, Rachelle reached the end of her resources. She started out doing a four hour shift with the possibility of adding a second one. She never felt able to do more than the one, which thoroughly exhausted her.

In conclusion, one can see that there are many different outcomes to the basic idea of volunteering, which begins with the idea that one has something to offer, and there are individuals or organizations that can benefit. It can be safe and limited, picking up litter for an hour or packing boxes to be passed out to the homeless or manning a game at a block fair. It can be a kind of exchange when one volunteers to get something back – a job or clients or just to network with people who might eventually prove useful. However, at its deepest level volunteering can go beyond what is safe and easy and can lead to genuine human encounters – encounters that are as varied as human beings. These encounters can test one and lead to important knowledge both of one's strengths and weaknesses. One might be able to sing and play instruments, learn to pour concrete, know how to find a lawyer for someone in need. Equally such encounters can leave one bereft, appalled and overwhelmed in a situation in which there is little one can do except sympathize with someone crying out at their infirmity, disease or vulnerability. As one volunteer told me, we are all helpless and exposed at the beginning and the end, and one hopes that someone is there to offer help and to soothe. That could cover a wide range of people – parent, son or daughter, relative, friend, doctor, social worker, pastor, police and many others, but one of them could be someone who comes to the situation as a volunteer.

UpdatesJonathan Judge