managing volunteers, non-profit, organizations, part time volunteer manager, staff and volunteers, volunteer, volunteer coordinator, volunteer manager, volunteer retention, volunteering, volunteers, why volunteers leave
I was turning the pages of an actual newspaper when I came across a picture of a former volunteer, Simone. I touched the grainy picture with my forefinger as though able to connect through ink and wood pulp. Simone had that look on her face, one of fierce determination and intent concentration. “I will make a difference, I will.”
She was actually referred to me by another organization who honestly did not know what to do with her. “Can you take her?” they asked. “We can’t provide her what she needs for the things she wants to do.” I love a challenge so I welcomed Simone. At first, her gravely voice kept me from focusing on her arresting blue eyes and I struggled to hear the things she said. Slender, in her mid eighties, Simone was as easily dismissible as a leaf that alights on a hurried walk down a garden path. But then those eyes, those two blue sponges that soaked up everything in view, made me stop and listen.
Simone was an architect, a poet, an artist, a tech guru and had created a website featuring photos of urban architecture. With no shouting, she commanded attention if you stopped thinking of her as a brittle autumn leaf.
She was full of some of the most creative ideas I’ve ever heard from one person. Ideas that spanned reaching the “left brained” or analytical side of patients, working with caregivers, grieving people and traumatic situations. In truth I could have carved out a 40 hour work week just by implementing Simone’s ideas.
Instead, I tried to focus on one thing at a time and together we started to build a framework by prioritizing our projects. I love projects. They start with a mind sketch and then there are real building plans and then you see the inner skeleton go up and pretty soon you have a frame that becomes a building.
Right now, every day, I drive past a gas station being built. While a gas station is not glamorous or pretty, I marvel at the thickness of the foundation followed by the steel beams that will hold up the structure and then there’s the walls that give it form. Finally, one afternoon the lights go on and it is open. We stop for gas, never thinking of the hours of labor, the grind of the heavy machinery, and the attention to support.
That was Simone and I. We donned our hard hats and got our nails dirty as we labored to make something out of her talents as an architect and artist. The foundation took awhile and so did the steel skeleton, but the walls felt good as we put them up. She was creating an art building with elderly patients. It was not a gas station, but a building full of love and patience. I helped her on many occasion and sometimes would stand back and marvel at her ability to soothe and touch as she guided hands to create. It was always those blue eyes, seeing nothing but the person in front of her, and his dabs of color on a paper or a wobbly block structure that would eventually mean something to both of them.
I found out that Simone had a close friend who was terminally ill and that partially explained her passion. But I think it was more the way she saw life, as a poet who could grasp the tenuous strands of existence and build some meaning with them.
One afternoon, Simone and I were together and she told me that she was going to write a book of poetry about the people she worked with. A facility that welcomed her was contacting family members to get permission for her to do so. Somehow, like the crumbling of ancient castles and the first flight of birds from a nest, I knew this day would come. I told Simone that there might be some difficulty surrounding her writing a book for publication. I told her that she would experience some push-back from our legal department since she was in fact, representing us at the facility. The question became, were her ideas her own and even if they were, did she not accept all the restraints that volunteering for an organization placed on her?
We sat and chatted. I wasn’t sure if I appeared to be protecting her or chastising her. Anyway I framed it, she felt the nay-saying voice of impediment. I represented barriers and roadblocks, not encouragement. Being a free spirit, she needed carte blanche to do what pioneers do: Develop new territory. I knew there would be a legal hassle as sure as I knew she would write the poetry anyway. So I did the only thing that I felt was right. I turned Simone loose. I asked her if the facility would support her and if she had legal representation. She assured me she did. I advised her to volunteer for them (leaving out any residents that were patients of our organization) and continue to build her program. See, I couldn’t bear the thought of tying her up with endless red tape and seeing those blue eyes plead with me to help her break free.
We hugged. I took Simone’s badge and gave her the freedom to create. I’ve always wondered if I could have done something to make it all ok, to run interference but an organization with layers and layers of legality and confidentiality cannot allow personal and financial gain from interactions with clients. I understand this. Clients are protected as they should be.
So, when I saw a picture of Simone in the paper accompanying an article about architecture and working with the elderly, I smiled. As expected, her eyes were focused on a frail woman hunched over a rudimentary building. Somehow, looking at Simone, if I softened my eyes, I could see her wings.