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“That is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” Raelinn huffed as she stared at the cacophony of colors and fabrics hanging before her eyes. “I mean, who would ever think that was art?”

Her best friend, Edna, slowed her pace and was at first taken aback. This quilt, entry #37, was indeed a mess. Irregular shapes, jumbled colors and materials ran every which way over the body of the cover, rendering it a shreeking noise in a choir of lilting quilt voices. But as she peered closer, she noticed a cat with an umbrella on a powder blue patch that had come from a baby blanket. She scanned the oddness and found another sort of large circular patch that must have been an old stained t-shirt from a wine tasting trip. It proclaimed, “Wine Not?” There was a somber black piece of cloth next to a tattered lace collar with the tiniest of stitching. She leaned in and saw the remains “Mothe” embroidered on the faded lace. Looking over the rest of the quilt, she took in the snippet of army uniform, the worn apron, the wedding dress, the graduation robe, the bloodied football jersey, the funeral attire.

As Raelinn pulled at her arm to go, Edna felt the the ugly quilt tug back and she smiled, thinking of all her volunteers. She gave a quick nod and the smallest of curtsies to the intimately messy display of the quiltmaker’s life and followed her friend.

When we field a request for volunteers, does the requesting person think they will get a volunteer who is a soft, new smelling fluffy comforter? Do they imagine the perfection of a perfectly laid out and sewn quilt?

We, who work with volunteers, know that each and every volunteer is really a wildly irregular patchwork quilt. These folks who volunteer their time are the cumulation of their life experiences to date and most are looking to add another patch to their diverse collection. Some volunteers want us to sew up gaping holes in their quilts, while others want us to erase the stains that mar their perception of beauty. A few have blank spots they want us to fill with something inspiring. Once in a while. someone would like to rip apart everything on their quilt and start over, hoping that we have the skilled hands to help them sew something redeeming.

But after all, we are a cumulation of who we are and who we have been. No volunteer is a fresh from the package down comforter that we can shake free and fluff to meet expectations. Edna, who looked into the details of the ugly quilt and found meaning in each and every patch possesses the ability to recognize the complexities of volunteers’ motivations and needs. She understands that volunteers are not manufactured fluffy comforters but are individually sewn quilts of textures and fabrics.

That is why volunteer managers are so good at placing the right best correct most deliberately chosen volunteer in every position and situation. It is our job to see the many patches and know how they will affect a volunteer’s performance and experience. The more compounded and complicated the job, the more relevant those patches become.

One of the greatest challenges facing volunteer managers today is enlightening our fellow staff on the nuances of volunteer recruitment and retention. Pulling a fluffly comforter off a shelf of hundreds of fluffy comforters is never what we do.

A patchwork human being takes a lifetime of experiences to create. Reading the meaning behind those patches requires a tremendous amount of perception and skill.

And when a quilt wraps a bed in harmonious warmth, it is then that the volunteer manager can stand aside and admire the perfect pairing.