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newell-convers-wyeth-the-rakish-brigantine-sea-captain-in-stormVolunteer Appreciation week has always been a chance to reconnect with volunteers. There are those you see every day, those you talk to on the phone weekly, and those you only see at meetings. Each volunteer takes the right amount of interaction, praise and mental follow-up. Don’t think for a moment that an event is easy, so if after an event your head is swimming, that’s normal. Events take finesse and each volunteer that comes up to you takes a minute or two of intense volunteer retention. It’s worth every moment but it is exhausting.

There are a few volunteers who do not attend meetings, and they prefer to bob out there on the volunteering sea, wind in face, their hands skillfully steering them through storm and calm. They take little to no management interference for they have impeccable motivation, mad skills and they’ve circumnavigated the globe of helping far longer than they’ve been managed. Open their brains and a tide of experience comes gushing out. They are the historians, the pioneers, the explorers who have led the way in your organization.
I encountered Jenna at an event during volunteer appreciation week. I hadn’t seen her in quite some time so I was thrilled that she came. Jenna and I go way, way back. She was one of the first volunteers I recruited to work at a hospice house about 20 years ago. Jenna, a British transplant, married an American man and spent time tutoring local high school students in the fine art of composition. I even got to attend her swearing-in ceremony when she became a citizen. Back in the day, we roamed the halls of the house, imagining volunteer programs while caring for patients as we went. It was new territory to discover and Jenna was fired up to be in the middle of something unique and innovative.
Several years later, Jenna moved and she ended up visiting nursing homes in her new area. Another volunteer coordinator was now involved with Jenna and occasionally I talked to her new manager, Shelby, about how Jenna was doing.
“Fine, just fine,” Shelby would always say. “She pretty much keeps to herself though. I don’t have a lot of dealings with her. Sometimes I’m just happy if she comes to a meeting. But she does turn in her paperwork and the patients love her.”
Hmmmm. These conversations never felt like we were speaking about Jenna, at least not the Jenna I knew. But I always requested my hello be passed on to her.
So, during volunteer appreciation week, Jenna surprised me. She snuck up behind me as I was checking people in and popped me on the back. “Jenna!” I yelled and gave her a big hug. “Wow, I didn’t know you were coming!”
“I was in town,” she said, and smiled. “I figured you’d be here and I wanted to say hi.”
“I’m so glad you did,” I returned, genuinely pleased to see her.
Since the event took up time and effort, Jenna sat with some long-term volunteers that she knew. But after the event was over, she hung around and helped clean up.
“So, how’s it going?” I asked. “I heard you were visiting nursing homes. That must be pretty awesome for you.” I said as I crumbled up paper tablecloths.
“Yeah, it’s ok,” she offered, a bit half heartedly. “I love the patients, don’t get me wrong.” She stared at a candy dish.
“Then what is it?” I asked putting aside my cleaning.
“It isn’t, it just isn’t the same.” she said. “Don’t you miss those days when we first started? How the atmosphere was so exciting and we were the first ones to create so many things? All of us, staff and volunteers, we were in it together, we had this incredible chemistry and we did amazing work.” She traced the top of the dish. “I miss it. It just isn’t the same. I feel so, so ordinary.”
I put my hand on her back. “You, my friend, are an amazing, wonderful volunteer. We never could have done half the things we did without your vision and enthusiasm. Sure, I miss it. I miss you, too.”
She looked at me and I wondered where explorers go after they’ve discovered whatever it was they were looking for.
“Jenna,” I offered, “things have changed. Goodness knows, they’ve changed a lot and we couldn’t do today what we did back then. But you have so much to offer. Look at all you’ve done. That Jenna is still there. Still waiting to reconnect and imagine.”
“I think I might want to try some different volunteering.” She said it almost as a question, as though she might be disloyal.
She looked like a little girl who has been down in the claustrophobic cabin of the boat, itching to get her hands on the wheel and steer somewhere exciting.
“You should. Go for it, you don’t have to cling to this. Go out and find a fledgling volunteer group and do amazing things.”
She gave me a hug. “Thank you. And thank you for understanding.” As she popped a chocolate in her mouth she asked, “you do feel it, don’t you? It’s not the same, right? I’m not crazy.”
“No, you are most certainly not crazy. I feel it. But things never remain the same. And neither do we. So, grow, my friend and don’t look back.”
With that she walked out. I’m certain she will find another spot to volunteer. Whether she can recapture the excitement of newness and innovation remains to be seen.
So, until I hear from her, I will just picture her, spray in face, hands on the wheel, steering for the horizon and whatever new territory lies out there.