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doctor with tabletJess is a petite brunette who brings a tranquil aura to her volunteering. She is positive, sensitive and gracious. That is, until a few weeks ago. I noticed something slightly askew when she complained about not having enough forms to fill out. She seemed irritated and preoccupied. I caught her a week later staring vacantly into space, and when spoken to, uninterested in the conversation. I had to ask her what was wrong and she reluctantly confided that her son just entered drug rehab. Ahhh, of course. Personal problems push aside tranquility like a schoolyard bully with the new kid.
Jess just wasn’t here, not 100%, and I suspect not even 50%. So, how does volunteering fit in with Jess’ definition of well-being?
As I pondered Jess’ circumstance and wondered if her volunteering gave her some sort of welcome distraction or if it just crowded her thoughts, I started thinking about how we “sell” volunteering by talking about how good it is for the participants. This caused me to reflect on the thousands of conversations with volunteers about their personal circumstances. It occurred to me that the vast majority of volunteers came with well-being already intact. We didn’t create well-being for them. We may have enhanced it, we may have filled a void, added a dimension, helped with grief, paved a way, helped fill time, boosted self-esteem, and maybe even helped mend a heart.

But in all those cases, we added, not created. This was a sobering thought for me. I’ve had volunteers who were forced to come, whether by a parent, spouse, school, court or a friend. The door for them is often shut. I think I’m kidding myself if I believe that I can make them a volunteer in spite of their resistance. They have to give just a little.
I remember Jana, a crushed human being. She came out of real desperation. She took over a year to start actually volunteering. Her beginning was spent healing. She made it with real determination. But the point is, she made it because she always wanted to make it and was willing to open up and find how she could. This becomes a tightrope walk for volunteer managers. How do you encourage someone to volunteer without letting them “experiment” on clients? It takes a great deal of patience and time and effort. It can be exhausting, especially since you have so many other volunteers to mentor. I think volunteer managers take personal pride in helping someone through volunteering. But I think, too, we don’t kid ourselves into thinking that volunteering will “fix” anyone.
I think of Antoinette, whose grown son had died 12 years before. She had hoped that by volunteering, she would find a way to fill the hole in her heart. She volunteered for 3 years, and it never happened. She spent the vast majority of her volunteer time talking to me about how her son’s wife was a negligent mother. She hurt, and no amount of volunteering helped. As a matter of fact, very early on in her volunteering, I once found a family member comforting Antoinette. After that, I kept her away from clients. Antoinette’s volunteering was exhausting. Other volunteers asked me why I put up with it. Honestly, I don’t know, but I suspect that somehow, I thought volunteering had this magical quality to it. I’m not so sure anymore.
I’ve had people tell me that volunteering has changed their life. What I think now, is that volunteering opened the door for a part of them that was always there. And if that’s the best we can do, then I’m pretty proud of that. Because it also means that we don’t have to continue to blame ourselves if volunteering doesn’t work for everyone. It’s not a salve or an elixir or a magic pill. It is an act of putting oneself aside to help someone else in their time of need. It takes a certain amount, even if it is miniscule, of well-being to volunteer. We, volunteer managers, can usually find that well-being fiber that allows someone to give selflessly. We love to cultivate it and make it grow.
But we don’t have drawers full of magic pills to hand out. Our drawers are full of the stuff that helps us do our job, like listening skills, discernment, patience and good, sound judgement.
And so, I now think that I’ve always been looking for volunteers to come and be well, not come and get well. Our clients certainly deserve that.