Friday, January 8, 2010

Trying To Help

Dr. deA asked me about a volunteer opportunity in Marin this morning. Let's just call it the VO for now, because I like the organization and I don't mean to besmirch its reputation in this post. But certain aspects of the process pricked my conscience and my ego and my sense of fair play and reminded me that memories are often less prickly than the actual events.

Huh?

Seems that Dr. deA has had a house guest for the last two weeks. A nice guy, with lots of common interests to be shared with the Dr. and his Mrs....... but he's been there for two weeks and enough is enough already. With his customary "Hey, kiddo...." the doctor welcomed me into the embrace of his space. It's a palpable feeling of comfort and security and brains and kindness rolled into a nice looking face under a well-worn hat. Believe me, it's a very good place to be.

Could I give him some information on the VO? Was it worth pursuing? Did I have a contact? Would they take his friend tomorrow and get him out of his hair....no that's not fair, he's a nice guy and has experienced lots of losses recently it's just that 2 weeks is 2 weeks and Dr. deA is about done.

The answers were simple: sure, absolutely, definitely and then I got stuck. Because the VO is like the most exclusive sorority on the snootiest Greek campus in the world. No joke. Strangers share experiences of being shut out year after year after year. Interviews are stressful encounters and dressed for with infinite care; there's a need to strike a balance between fashion-plate and genuine hard working volunteer, and the fear of over-compensating in one direction or the other has been known to reduce otherwise normal women to a state of catatonia.

They took me even though I didn't know anybody; when asked how I got in I just smiled and said "my reputation must have preceded me" ... but I had no idea what that meant. I was a little embarrassed to have been accepted..... was I worthy?

Once I was a part of the group, I saw that there was nothing really special about any one of the members. They bore no resemblance to the scary girls from high school. They were warm and inclusive and smart and dedicated and I liked almost every one of them.

So, to answer Dr. deA's question, I have a lot of contacts. I was a valued member of the organization and I miss its work and its membership almost every day. It met all of my needs and asked no more than I was willing to give. It is housed in a beautiful and convenient and happiness-inducing setting. I know a lot of people and could call on them for assistance without fear of overstepping our friendship.

And that's when it hit me. Here was a person recommended by someone with impeccable taste. This person has nothing but time and is desperate to fill it with meaningful work. Monetary reward is not a consideration; he wants his time and his heart to be filled. The VO would take care of that nicely...... and it's not immediately available to him.

I know that there's a need to keep things small enough to manage them well, and that the volunteer hours expended to train (the training's the best part) the participants goes up exponentially with the addition of more trainees but the guy is willing to work for free for cryin' out loud! He needs the companionship and the mental stimulation that's part and parcel of the VO experience. How can an organization turn him away?

I'd have liked to have told him that there was a process to be followed, and that if he weren't accepted into the first class, he would, within a few years, be included. But no, this is not the scenario. Instead, people apply, interview and receive rejections year after year after year. It's not a glamorous board we're talking about. There are no television appearances nor ball gowns to be worn to fabulous celebratory dinners. And yet prospective volunteers, able volunteers, eager and intelligent and enthusiastic volunteers are turned away, with no hope that the future will hold a brighter ending.

Isn't that just wrong? Shouldn't there be a way to include those who want to share in the hard work of making the planet a better place? When a person genuinely wants to be a part of an organization and join in the good work that they do shouldn't that opportunity be available to her?

Last January I signed up to wrap Christmas presents for kids in foster care when December rolled around. On the appointed date, I drove to the location and found that the paid staff had done the work and we volunteers were no longer needed. In fact, we were kind of in the way since the movers were there and could we just shove over and continue this conversation in the.......... I left, feeling heartsick. I was aggravated because my time had been wasted but it was more than that. I wanted to do good. I had been prepared to do good. I was looking forward to that happy space in my heart that is only accessible when I'm having fun while helping out..... and it was nowhere to be found. And I was furious that, because my time was unpaid, it was so under-valued that no one had thought to send an email and preempt my cross-town trek.

The care and feeding of volunteers -- there's a knack to it that some organizations do almost unconsciously and that others need real help with.

I wish I had a better answer for Dr. deA's friend. I sent an email off to my-friend-the-former-president recommending his guest and I told him the basics of what I've written here. And we both sighed. We know these things could be done better; we just don't have the power to make the world work the way we know it should.

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