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132px-Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Worn_Out_(F997)This is a tough story to tell, partly because it’s hard to find those keeper nuggets of truth that help the rest of us navigate our jobs. Sometimes, I think things just are and maybe really these experiences are like everyday life. You can’t predict them and the only way to prevent them is to stop living.
Cara is a wonderful volunteer coordinator with a big heart as almost all volunteer coordinators are. She’s been doing this for years, has mentored and seen at least a thousand volunteers come and go. She has wisdom and has honed her instincts like a blacksmith with a prized sword.
Several years ago, Cara met a young woman, Gwen, who showed an interest in volunteering. Gwen was hesitant, but hopeful and Cara encouraged her, letting Gwen take small steps to find her niche. Gwen rapidly blossomed into what Cara describes as “one of the most gifted volunteers I have ever encountered.” Gwen was magic with clients and had a presence that allowed even the most downtrodden individual a voice. Words such as “angel,” “like my own grandchild,” and “my confidante” came floating back on waves of gratitude.
Cara quietly mentored Gwen, preferring to stand back and let Gwen’s innate ability flourish. As they spent more time together, Cara learned that Gwen had a difficult childhood. She was estranged from her mother and Cara, ever the professional, did not step in to fill those missing shoes. Instead, she listened and encouraged, much the same as she did with all of her volunteers. But this one, this one was like the Derby winning horse in the stable. Gwen was worth the extra effort because the clients deserved the best volunteer help.
As the years went on, Cara heard more and more about Gwen’s chaotic life outside the organization. She had a family and a job and troubles seemed to swirl around her in a cacophony of drama. But Gwen still had that touch with clients, and although Cara’s radar now went up, she carefully kept watch on Gwen’s volunteering.
Occasionally, Gwen would drop in and cry for twenty minutes. Illness, fights with her husband, disagreements with her boss, run-ins with parents of her children’s classmates would knock her world out of orbit. Concerned, Cara suggested counseling and one day Gwen came into the office sobbing about her counselor. Cara immediately removed Gwen from any and all volunteering. She told Gwen to please concentrate on herself for a change. What Cara did not say was that she now thought Gwen an inappropriate volunteer.
Their relationship morphed into Cara’s trying to help Gwen but with none of the volunteering. I asked Cara why she continued with Gwen and she said, “you know, it’s not that easy, just giving up on someone who hasn’t done anything wrong. Clearly she needed help and I had forged a relationship with her. I couldn’t just turn my back on her. And besides, when you see flashes of brilliance in someone, you can’t help but think that they are salvageable.”
At some point, Gwen became angry with Cara, and stayed away for a bit, but then came back and Cara tried to help again. At this point, it had been two years since Gwen had done any volunteering. The second time Gwen got mad, Cara shut the door and now has no plans to re-open it. “I’m done,” she says. Does she miss the opportunity to help Gwen reclaim greatness? Not as much as you might think. She says, “it was like I could feel the flutter of a page turning. I feel finished, and I’ve done all I can. Besides, I have other volunteers to mentor.”
I asked Cara if she thought once Gwen got her life under control, would she be able to return? “Honestly, no. I think that was a time in her life when volunteering fit and made sense. It will be impossible to recapture.”
I’ve always thought that volunteers have a shelf life. Whether illness, moving away, disinterest or inability to function in the best interests of the client are the reasons, it won’t matter. When it’s time for a volunteer to stop, either by our request or theirs, then it’s time.
Can we compare volunteering to art? I think so. Some genius is tempered with madness. I don’t think it’s a stretch to apply that to our brightest volunteers. I’ve seen them. Brilliant volunteers who paint masterpieces like van Gogh but are burdened with issues that often become too much. It’s sad and we walk a fine line between encouragement and interference. We want not only what’s best for those we serve, but also what’s best for the volunteers. Sometimes, even we can’t make that happen. We can only do the best we can with what we have to work with. And who knows how well service fits within a volunteer’s view of the themselves and the world. We have to be able to let that door shut when volunteering no longer works for the clients and for the volunteers.
If we can’t, then we’ll go mad.