A prospective volunteer, Judy came to one of my orientations last month. She eagerly embraced the topics, participated in class and repeatedly told me how much she “owed” us for caring for her husband. She is passionate, ready to work and a strong woman. She and her husband owned a business that she now shares with her children. She has artistic abilities, is educated, well spoken and incredibly smart. She is that volunteer we dream about when we’re not having a nightmare that all the unfinished work has fused together into a giant smiling clown with a pillow and is suffocating us in our sleep. (You do have that dream, too, don’t you?)
I spent a good two hours with her one on one in a private interview a week after classes ended. We talked about her abilities and talents, her ideas and plans to help and all the folks in her business circle she knows that she can enlist to help too. So, what could possibly be wrong with this perfect volunteer?
Did you guess she’s moving? Nope. Did you guess she’s really crazy? Nope again.
Although we spent time talking about all those wonderful things, we spent 90% of the time talking about her husband’s illness and death. He died four years ago and to our credit, we took wonderful care of him. Judy passionately talked about losing a husband so early in life, the shock, the quickness of the rare disease, the legal issues surrounding a business and a lone position in life with friends encouraging “getting back in the dating game.” She had already started a support group on Facebook, has reached out to the community for research funds and would love to be able to help other young widows. Her ideas are lofty, her desire to help of the highest noble thoughts. Her energy is infectious and I wanted to reach into my drawer and pull out my checkbook.
Our conversation reminded me of John Walsh, the host of the TV show, “America’s Most Wanted.” Mr. Walsh began his crusade after his son, Adam was brutally murdered. It’s what experts call instrumental grieving, the throwing of oneself into a cause. It’s truly amazing to watch someone do that, to see their resolve, to feel their calling. These people are remarkable. They turn despair and tragedy into benefits for the rest of us. I know if my husband were to fall ill to that disease that took Judy’s husband, I would want her coaching me.
But, I cannot, in good conscience, put Judy with patients, family members or the bereaved. It matters not that she really, really, really wants to help. It matters not that she is full of passion and energy. But it does matter that in the three times we’ve talked, everything always comes back to her experience.
I’ve witnessed raw, unrelenting grief before. I’ve seen potential volunteers so fired up that they speak in a machine gun volley that shoots down every thought that does not apply to their situation. I’ve watched eager people grasp onto volunteering like a life-preserver in a sea of molten pain. I feel for them, because, just like every other volunteer, I get to know them and to know these volunteers is to know heartache. I so want to help them work through their grief, but my first loyalty is to the clients at hand. And they need volunteers who are sound, mostly healed, or at least healed enough to put aside their own lives.
And so, as the conversation wound down, Judy looked at me and breathlessly asked, “do you think I can do this?”
“Not yet,” I answered truthfully. See, I’ve learned over the course of so many years that it’s much kinder to be honest. Then I added, “I’m thinking that you will be wonderful with our patients and families one day and we are incredibly fortunate to have you. Right now, I hear some hurt and we don’t want this work to add to your hurt. You’ve been through so much.”
“I know. It still hurts and I trust your judgement.” Tears welled in her eyes. “I just need to help.” I could see the dam about to break but she quickly stuck another emotional patch on the crack that threatened to burst.
What a burden to trust me, I thought selfishly. I’m fallible, running on instinct and gut. I want to be wrong about you, to just let you come in and get whole again.
Here’s where volunteer management is on a whole other level from standard HR. Just like HR, we have jobs to fill and we head hunt for the best people for the job. But we don’t reject people. We don’t pick and choose. We try to find a place for everyone, and it takes hard work to find places for everyone. I will find a place for Judy. We will start small and away from the clients. I want to see her succeed as a volunteer and to mend her deep wounds. It will take time, observation, mentoring and caution. That’s what I signed up to do.
But first, I will do no harm, not to Judy and not to our clients.