“Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm. As you grow older you will discover that you have two hands. One for helping yourself, the other for helping others.”
Community service has always been a huge part of my life. I think I learned it from my mom. She was always the classroom parent, or volunteering at various events my school put on. No matter how busy my three older siblings and I kept her, she always made time to give back to others in the community. So when I got to high school and our community service requirement was only 60 hours for the whole four years, I thought, “That’s it?”
Yes, high school was a busy time for all of us. The coursework was the heaviest we had seen to date, and you might have been involved in extracurriculars because you had to impress colleges, but we really weren’t that busy. Surely the kids in my high school had more than 15 spare hours every year to help others. 60 seemed like a dismal number. How were we supposed to make a difference with only 60 hours?
I find a lot of people that begin volunteering start out with the mentality that I had in high school. You sign up to volunteer somewhere and you think to yourself, “Yes! I’m going to make such a huge difference and impact so many lives!” And that’s great if that’s your goal! But no one can change the world in an afternoon. And a lot of times, when you sign up to volunteer at an organization, you’re never doing exactly what you think you signed up for.
Over the course of 7 years I’ve probably clocked in nearly 1,000 service hours at over 100 different organizations. And at every service event I see the same person. This person typically doesn’t volunteer often, and they are always shocked and disappointed by the tasks assigned to us. I’ve been to organizations that only wanted me and the other volunteers to organize their back storage room, and others where I was told to just stand at the entrance and greet guests. Not the kinds of tasks you’d expect at an organization that provides resources for babies born into poverty, and a food bank. And this person is upset that they don’t get to interact with the people they’re helping.
In volunteering, it’s not always about the clients. A lot of the times it is, but sometimes it’s just about the organization. And you know what? I’ve never seen anyone more grateful for my help than the woman that asked us to organize her storage room. Because the room was neat and easily navigable, she informed us that we just increased the efficacy of their program by a lot. No longer will clients have to sit and wait while a staff member does their best to be quick while retrieving something from that room. Now, it takes that staff member a matter of seconds. And the man that asked me to greet the guests at his food bank, informed me that his clients shouldn’t feel ashamed for needing help. So when they have the door opened for them by someone with a smile, it completely sets the tone for their experience.
It’s important to remember that when you volunteer, you’re often working with nonprofit organizations. They don’t have the time or the funds to pay someone overtime to organize a room. And they also can’t afford to have their staff greeting guests when they need them in the back handing out food. When someone comes along to do it, it’s a huge help whether it seems that way to you or not. So to that person, you might not have made an enriching connection with someone that the organization benefits, but you did help change at least one person’s life, even if it is just the director and their staff.
I was naive to think that 60 hours wasn’t enough. That was more than enough. Because the reality in the volunteering world, is that one hour cleaning out a room or greeting people can make all the difference.