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pick up stixI don’t know if was a full moon, or maybe Venus somehow sneaked around and eclipsed Mars, but there was a definite vibe in my volunteer training the other evening. You know the old game Pick Up Stix where you drop sticks down and then have to pick them up one by one? New groups of volunteers remind me of the random pattern you get from that game. Each group’s dynamics is so varied, yet intertwined and the personalities clash or sync which really creates the tempo.

One of our volunteers, Dave, has always offered to come and speak to class. I took him up on his offer. I love volunteer speakers; they are honest, inspiring, witty and extremely encouraging. You never know, though what they are going to say, but for the most part, honesty works.

Dave sauntered in and greeted me gruffly, said hi to the newbies and got to work recounting his experiences with patients and families. He told them about patients who were funny, families who were loving, circumstances that were inspiring. He stretched his images out like canvas over a frame, painting a colorful and rich world of volunteering.

Then, suddenly Dave shifted gears. It came after he spoke about a patient who had battled alcoholism for most of his life. Dave grew serious as he described the patient’s struggle and then launched into his own battle with alcohol abuse. He spoke about the program he enrolled in and the dedicated counselor he had.

Oh, oh, I thought as I scanned the class. Too much information. But how do I stop Dave without giving the impression that he was speaking out of turn? But as I surveyed the faces, I could see they were mesmerized. Dave finished by emotionally thanking everyone for their attention, and as he left, his confession hovered over those pick up sticks like a hand about to drop. And before I could apologize or commend, one new volunteer, Janice started talking about her up and down battle with depression and how it had ruled her life since she was a teenager. Her classmates nodded sympathetically. Then Troy added that he had been institutionalized while in college and pretty soon each one confessed challenges they had faced in life.
I had not only lost control, I lost my space in this jumble of sticks that were starting to move into a line. As I sat back and let them talk to one another, I realized that the next big subject we were going to tackle was active listening. I watched them listen to one another, and from habit I looked from one face to another. Every one of them was intently focused on the others. It was awesome, actually.
They finished and looked at me like kids who were caught. “we’re sorry,” they said.
“You know,” I mused as they allowed me back in, “this is the first time in 20 years I’ve ever done this, but I’m going to skip the first part of our active listening exercise. What you’ve done here with each other is real, authentic active listening.”
They beamed.
It got me to thinking. What lurks in the volunteers’ past? What stories and secrets do they keep locked away until someone gives them permission to turn the key? Does it matter if we know? What doesn’t show up on a background check? That I hate my mother, I’m obsessive compulsive, I am afraid of people with red hair? Will a background check reveal that I have an agenda? Or that I am not a team player?

Will I watch these volunteers more closely? Honestly, no. I think they represent all volunteers. They just happened to feel comfortable enough with each other to be honest. We all have something that on paper makes us undesirable, but in person makes us honest, vulnerable, human. We want the human volunteers and that’s what we get every day. So, when new volunteers connect with one another, I don’t have to pick up sticks and worry about moving the ones below. They moved each other into a sync that will serve them well when working with our patients and families.
Their confessions? Safe with me.