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play place“What do you get from your job?” A friend asked me recently as we sat swapping family hijinks over coffee. I thought maybe she was asking if I got vacation pay or bonuses or perks like a giant curly slide in the hallway. (yeah, like that would make us all more compassionate). No, I admitted, there are no rumpus rooms, no gourmet foods or fancy water stations and video games for us who work in charities.

Perks for us are not measured by sporting event tickets or flexible hours. (for us it’s more like flexible hours mean our families have to be flexible). So, what to tell my friend? Well, how can I explain the personal heroes that I get to know and work with? Not to downplay wonderful staff, but the volunteers we get to work with can be heroes not only to our organizations and clients we serve, but to us as well. They are our flesh and blood perks.

I think of volunteers like Gretchen, who has always treated my children like a surrogate Grandmother. See, both of my children’s Grandmothers died when they were young, as well as one Grandfather, so Gretchen was sometimes the only Grand parenting they enjoyed. Gretchen would remember conversations with each one and would inquire about the smallest of details while giving sage advice and encouragement. I also think of my friend Tammy who has a volunteer Quinn who has helped her move several times in the past few years. Quinn comes out no matter if it’s raining or late or if she needs an extra truck or if there’s a sleeper sofa to be moved. (Did you ever lift a sleeper sofa? It’s the worst-I managed a resale store for a bit and sleeper sofas scared me like the approach of a zombie horde)

But then I also think of volunteers who are personal heroes because I’ve been privileged to witness their character.

Kris suffers from deep debilitating depression, but pushes herself to help others, because as she says, “I won’t let this illness keep me from making someone else’s burden lighter.”

Marvin wears a cad pump which dispenses pain medication. He was almost killed in a devastating car accident but survived and endured excruciating surgeries. He tends to shrug off his misfortune by focusing on others. “I have to live life,” he says, “and I have to mean something to someone.”

Years ago, Bella’s eight year old daughter went missing. She was found three days later, the victim of an accidental drowning in a retention pond near her home. Bella quietly told me that the three days not knowing where her daughter might be was ultimately worse than her death. I can’t even begin to imagine either horror. Bella works with victims of trauma, and has turned her experience learning to survive in the cruelest of realities into helping others with similar pain. “I’m not going to just hurt all the time. I’m going to make a difference,” she says fiercely.

Rod was born with two deformed hands. His childhood was spent alternately trying to fit in with the neighborhood kids or trying to recover from the ugly jeers. He has forged a great life and always feels more fortunate when helping someone else. “You can’t concentrate on the things you don’t have,” he says simply, “you have to concentrate on the things you do have, and you’ll see. You have much to be grateful for.”

I’ve met so many volunteers who are inspirational, in the way they view life, in the way they overcome, and in the way they strive to quietly serve and make the world around them better.

Jan, whose body is now failing her due to age, just shrugs off the aches, pains and limitations thrown at her daily. “That’s why they made canes and walkers!” she declares with a laugh. “I’m not done yet!”

Manuel, whose wife died so young carries her picture in his pocket. “I’m doing this for her,” he says. “For how much I loved her.”

Ramon, who was a CEO and on surface could have been aloof. “I never instituted a rule I would not follow myself.” He said. “I need to focus on others, their pain, their journey and be for them what they need me to be or else, who am I?”

While cool places to work have ping-pong tables and on site gyms (does our running around all day count?), we have a different perk. We get to make daily trips to our own local Bodh Gaya where we are enlightened by the wisdom of profoundly experienced people. Even though I sometimes fantasize about having a juice bar or maybe just not having to pack my lunch again, I wouldn’t trade for that in a million years. I can get my own flavored water. I can visit a park with my grandchild and lumber down the slide. I can buy my own sports tickets and join a gym.

Wisdom and purpose don’t come in free lattes for everyone. They come from years of seeking and humbly being a student of others’ life lessons. So I will tell my friend, “My perks come in sitting at the feet of knowledge and inspiration.”

Hopefully, some of that knowledge will find it’s way into my soul.

-Meridian