My very first adult job required me to walk to the bus stop, take a bus to the train station, ride the train downtown and then walk from the train station to work. I followed the same path day after day. I knew the routine of the stores opening, the passing of the street sweepers and the smell of wet concrete. But one day, as I exited the station, the sidewalk was blocked with wooden barriers and I had to walk an unfamiliar way. As the sun peeked over the tops of skyscrapers, the deep shadows between buildings scared me. This morning, this sidewalk felt deserted, hostile and I thought someone would jump out at me from a back alley. But as I pulled my collar up tight against the shadow cold, and felt in my pocket for keys that might serve as a weapon, I caught sight of a tiny shop tucked between two mammoth buildings. “Rare books,” it proclaimed. I stopped and squinted into the store, relaxing my grip on the keys. Although not open yet, I could feel the comfort of the leather-bound pull through the window. Suddenly this street helped the sun reach over the steel and open up its gifts. I now had an alternate way to work.
Years ago, when Peter came to volunteer, I sadly have to admit, I pulled my collar up against the cold of the unknown. His multiple piercings and extreme quiet seemed as daunting as the dark buildings of an unfamiliar street. I was used to students who looked and acted familiar. You know the ones, the bright, talented and focused kids who give you the sense that all will be better in the years not yet decided.
Why was he here I thought. What trouble has he been in? A part of our jobs is to determine how much court ordered community service we can handle effectively. We ask, “what was the charge?” We root out the potential volunteer’s attitude towards community service and weigh whether or not he or she will be a benefit to our clients or a hindrance.
I asked Peter if he was required to volunteer and he said no. I relaxed my grip on preconceived notions and let my curiosity take over. It seems that Peter had finished high school in another area and moved with his disabled mother to our town. In between looking for jobs and caring for his mom, he wanted to give back. I asked him to come to the next volunteer orientation which was starting in a few days. He not only completed orientation, but also covered his tattoos and removed some piercings so as not to frighten the generations he would be volunteering with. His thoughtful, intense ability to hear the inner meaning of others made him a natural volunteer.
See, when a paid position is posted, HR departments comb through prospective employees to find the one that best fits that particular job opening. If an intriguing prospect has a different skill-set than the job posted, the HR professional can keep their application in a file for the future and hope that a job utilizing that skill-set comes open. It must be difficult to turn away quality people who just don’t quite match the open job requirements.
We, however, don’t have to turn away volunteers because we just have one slot to fill. We can utilize multiple people for one position and on the creative end, design new ways to use volunteers. It is immensely satisfying, creative and full of leadership potential.
When Anne came to volunteer I think I spent several thirty minute sessions just getting to know her. There was something about her intensity, abilities and talents that just did not fit the binder of possible volunteer jobs I had available. During our first meeting I found out she was a corporate sales trainer. (Volunteer Job=volunteer training? Hmm, maybe) In our second get together, we talked about her love of discipline and building lasting relationships in sales. (Volunteer job=administration? Maybe not so much). Our third meeting revealed that her mother died in a nursing home and she had a passion for those residents. (Volunteer job=nursing home volunteer? Yes, but she had mega skills) By the time we met again, I think I had a feeling for Anne’s tremendous potential. She ended up helping me increase our nursing home volunteer base by threefold. She spoke to new volunteers about the importance of volunteering in a nursing home. She personally mentored new volunteers in key nursing home settings and she co-facilitated nursing home meetings. She brought a passion coupled with mad skills to a newly created position.
If Anne had applied for a paid job, we would not have hired her and would have missed this incredibly committed and talented human being. Thank goodness she came to volunteer.
HR requirements put a great deal of restrictions on hiring people and those restrictions are seeping into volunteer services with stricter background checks and liability policies. But, there is one area that we can still control. We can thoroughly get to know our prospective volunteers and find meaningful places for them as long as we have the means and ability to cultivate and manage them.
We don’t have to walk the same path everyday. When faced with an alternate route, we can opt to venture through unfamiliar territory and increase our chances of finding those gems that are tucked along our journey. And that’s where courage and leadership begin.