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crowded restaurantGroups of students, what can I say? I love them!  I love their energy, their brand newness, their looks when they think I’m a bit daft. They’re energizing, but exhausting!

I have this equivalent mental image of a sandwich cafe just outside of Niagara Falls. The owner has sporadic business and keeps putting up ads and specials to attract more customers. But then, every first Monday of the month, the buses of tourists pull up all at once! The tourists tumble out and their tour directors run into the shop, spitting orders, while looking at their itineraries and talking over one another. The shop owner frantically tries to fill all the orders, no mustard, extra onions, mayo on the side, hurry up, hurry up, hurry up or the buses will go elsewhere!

The shop owner wants the business, so who is he to complain? But furiously throwing out sandwiches is not like making sure each one is made to order. The buses groan as they pull away, tourists munching while looking forward to their next stop. The cafe owner will never hear their complaints or kudos, he’ll never see those tourists again. But he’s counting on that tour director to bring another busload back, much as the frenzy is crushing when it happens.

That’s what having groups of students is like. Much like tour buses, they visit, get their sandwich and go. They’re not long term and they travel together. You have to manage them in bulk which is vastly different than one one one.  Fraternities, service clubs, and teams all are great opportunities for us to have a lot of volunteers at one time. But typically the groups want to work together, have very specific schedules and a shortened time they will be with us. All of that’s perfectly fine, and truly, it is fun showing them the world of service.

But at night, when the lights are out and the equipment is turned off, the cafe owner falls into bed, spent. “yes,” he whispers, “there’s new money in the till, yes,” he mumbles as he pulls off his clothes, “I can keep my cafe open another week and yes,” he sighs as he draws the covers up around him, “I’m so grateful for the tourist buses,” and as the spittle dribbles down over his chin,  he mumbles, “I ache in places I didn’t know…”

What do you do with your groups? Twenty students want to do a project together, but you have no parking lot to clean, no building that needs freshening up. The groups can only work on a Saturday at 5pm, so do you ask a seasoned volunteer to oversee them and hope for the best, or do you leave your family every time and go in, because, like that cafe owner, some one has to make sure it gets done? Student groups can’t do a lot of orientation so do you give them a quick 15 minutes, knowing that it’s inadequate and knowing that you have to be with them every step of the way, so as to explain the mission to them and keep them from innocently saying or doing something inappropriate? Do you imagine that other staff could view the students as being in the way and you then hover over them so as to protect them? Do you spend endless hours coordinating their schedule with availability of clients, staff and other volunteers?

For senior management, student groups are viewed as “THE BIG ONE!” What they don’t realize is the logistics of managing “THE BIG ONE”.  Yes, it’s rewarding, yes we love them, yes, it’s great PR. But we volunteer managers are the ones, spittle dripping onto our pillows, crawling into our beds at night. “Did I forget one of the student names?” we murmur, “can I stick 10 students into a clients home if I just have them all be quiet?” Our dreams are dense with “what ifs” and the dreaded, “if they don’t have a good experience, they will go elsewhere next time.” Shudder, we can’t have that now, can we?

I’m stocking up for the next rush of students during spring break. I’m taking my vitamins, asking all around now for any big special projects that can be done by groups and clearing my calendar for late evenings and weekends. Hopefully, this cafe will be ready for the rush because each tour director (student group leader) has to have a satisfactory experience so that they will be back. And I’m experimenting with new sandwiches all the time; gotta keep the menu fresh and interesting.

But I’m also investing in a new pillow and maybe a new spa cd. See, I think when the buses leave, I’ll be spending some real time sprawled across the bed, mouth open, with inhuman sounds coming out of me. Maybe as I fall into a crushing sleep, somewhere a student will remark, “that was a really good sandwich!”