The Importance of Volunteers

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As volunteer supervisor, I spend most of my office time looking at schedules. It’s not something I’ve ever been inclined toward, unlike some of my coworkers, who seem to think in excel spreadsheets. But here I am, dutifully marking the hours of a weekend volunteer. Shift one: 2 hours. Shift two: 1.75 hours. It starts to blur together. I forget her name. I forget what she’s trained on or what day she comes. The spreadsheet yawns before me and I yawn back.

But that isn’t why I took this job. The schedules are only a dull byproduct of community service, a much more sparkly, shimmery world than the land of excel. I can’t count all of the people I’ve met who want to give something to the organization. Parents whose kids frequent the museum want to help us at a fundraiser. A neighbor from the retirement community across the street just want to pop in and, in her words, “kiss all the babies.”

Then there are the high-achieving Key Clubs and Honor Society students, engaging in the cutthroat world of service hours and college applications. But where I expect them to be cynical and focused on just getting the hours, they are genuine, even passionate about helping children succeed. When I ask what position they’d like, these high school students ask me, “Where do you need the most help?” And I be lost without the English immersion program at City U, whose foreign undergrads volunteer with manic enthusiasm, selflessly giving back to a country that is often brand new to them.

It’s a continuous and pleasant surprise that so many people want to dedicate their free time to us; that people, who already spend 8 or more hours a day in a classroom or an office, behind a counter, or chasing after their children, want to spend a few more hours helping my organization.

So in each interview I posit the question to potential volunteers: Why do you do it? And, to the students especially, who have to complete dozens of community service hours to graduate, would you continue to volunteer if you didn’t have to?

People have all kinds of answers, usually a mix of personal and loftier goals, such as this letter from Maria, a summer camp volunteer;

“I especially think that getting younger people interested in science and art can help in getting the next generation more actively involved with creating and exploring, in ways that can positively shape the world. For myself, I also felt that volunteering at KidsQuest could help me gain some leadership experience, since I have tended to be a little shy in the past. (…) If I didn’t have to volunteer, I would still try to, but it’s likely that I wouldn’t volunteer as often due to already having a busy schedule. I do think that it’s best when people can find a way to volunteer that they enjoy; one way I volunteer is by playing music in the community, which I love to do regardless of volunteer hours. ”

Regardless of their personal situation, the answer tends to come back to community, and the volunteer’s place in it. I get countless emails about giving back and getting to know the community, and I marvel especially at the early wisdom of some of these teenagers: they know their fortune often revolves around the efforts of people around them. Politicians and cultural icons take note.

I try to remind myself of this while I update my schedules. It’s more than a name and a sum of hours. It’s an effort to leave a mark, however small, that says “I was here. I did this for you.”

Contributed by Daniela Garvue