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“I walked into this position without any experience,” says Miriam, a tiny freckled redhead with sea blue glasses. “I had no idea what to expect since I had never worked with volunteers before. My supervisor told me to come in with a purpose, to take charge. They gave me a volunteer manual so that I could train new volunteers and a list of rules.” Miriam sighed. “No one encouraged me to listen to the existing volunteers, to hear their stories, to get their history. Actually, a couple of long-term volunteers wanted me to shadow them, to see what it is they do but I felt like my manager wanted me to establish the program without too much volunteer input. For whatever reason, I didn’t shadow those volunteers and now I think I regret that.”

Oh boy. Walking into an established program is tough. How do you meet the expectations of the organization yet give power to the volunteers? How much weight do you give to how things were done before? How much immediate control do you need to establish? Is there a happy medium?

I remember the day I walked into an established program. I was scared because I had no idea how the volunteers did what they did. How can someone who knows nothing, tell them how to volunteer? How could I train new volunteers with no idea of what it was like?

Fortunately, a lifesaver named Mary took pity on me. Mary had been volunteering for some time and she saw how lost I was and because, luckily she wanted me and the program to succeed, she burst into the office one day and took my arm. “C’mon,” she said, “I want to take you with me to meet my hospice patient.”

She drove me to this nondescript house. Mary explained, “the caregiver is a neighbor who took the patient into her home after the patient’s husband died. They had no children.” We knocked and entered the modest home which to me, felt like a labyrinth of secrets and unknown societies. The patient, Emma, a child’s smile touching the corners of her lips, watched as Mary greeted her caregiver and neighbor, Francine. I was introduced to both and I folded myself inconspicuously into a corner to observe. Francine, who was going out on errands while we sat with Emma, whirled around the living room, searching for keys, lists of groceries, and gathering papers to drop at the bank. Mary’s visit was her once a week chance to get her errands done. With a manic intensity, Francine showed Mary where everything she could possibly need was located, all the while assuring us that she would return as quickly as possible. There was this wild energy in the room. I couldn’t look away from the enormous responsibility of Francine.

But then I watched calm Mary, who had been gently stroking Emma’s hand while steadily gazing into her eyes. “Just a moment,” Mary said to her as she got up from Emma’s side. She walked over to Francine who had just checked her purse again and was opening the door to leave, still mumbling over and over that she wouldn’t be gone long. Mary gently wrapped her arm around Francine’s shoulders and said, “you are doing a remarkable job. We can all see how difficult this is and you are doing it with grace. You need to know what a blessing you are to Emma.”

And then it happened. I heard the catch in Francine’s voice. I saw her shoulders rise and her expression change. I felt the waves of encouragement wash over her. I experienced the renewal she felt.
And in that brief moment, in that tiny living room, Mary opened up the world of volunteering to me.

Being able to connect with our volunteers as they change the lives of those we serve is a precious gift. The moments we are privileged to witness inspire us, teach us and equip us to enlist others in important work.

Our volunteers are teachers too. From them we learn to see, to hear and to feel. And then, armed with those gifts in our fingertips, we can put our rules and expectations in place.