Not everything volunteer managers do will be visible. Rather, in reality, most of our meaningful work is not about measurable numbers or stats. For this out of view work, there will be no awards, no pay raises and no parades. Yet, when recalling the moments that matter, these are the ones that usually spring into our minds.
Helga was a volunteer who came to America after WWII. She married an American soldier, left her home in Germany to forge a new life in a new country with her new husband. Helga still retained her German accent. She was a tiny woman with a smile that reached up to her eyes, even after her beloved husband had died. I asked her to take a shift on the reception desk.
We were in the process of initiating fingerprinting (Level 2) for our volunteers. It is a cumbersome and tedious process and the digital prints are hard to capture. Until this point, I submitted background checks (Level 1), read each report and challenged every anomaly I found. With Level 2, a central system approved or disapproved our volunteers, taking it out of my hands.
We slowly filtered all of our volunteers, new and existing through the fingerprinting process. And, Helga was rejected. The rationale was that fingerprinting picks up “things” that a level 1 does not. I had to call Helga and tell her. I remember calling her and asking her to come in and talk to me. She knew immediately that it had to do with her fingerprints. She started to cry.
We made an appointment for the next day. I hung up and felt…….. enraged. I wanted to know why this beautiful lady was being rejected, so I found an empty office and began to call the reporting agency, bouncing from person to person. It took the afternoon to get through to someone who could spend a minute to help me. She put me on hold, then came back on the line. “What’s her social security number again?” she asked. I told her. After another long hold, she came back. “Well, it seems it was a computer error. Your person has a clean record.”
I called to tell Helga the good news, but something told me to keep our appointment. She did not answer so I left the message to please come in so I could explain in person what had happened.
Helga came in the next day. I found a secluded spot to talk with her. We sat, knees to knees and I explained to her that it was a computer glitch. She burst into tears, crying deep and long as though a dam had given way. I hugged her. “Are you sure it was a mistake?” She asked.
I wondered if this was about something other than her volunteering. “It was just a mistake, Helga. Do you trust me?” I said. “I would not lie to you.”
She nodded and dabbed at her eyes. “I thought you might,” she said, “think I was a Nazi.”
Suddenly, the present fell away. I could see her, a young hopeful bride after the war was over, arriving in her new home. I could feel her trying to ignore the suspicions while desperately proving she was a good person. I could imagine that the past did not lie buried.
We cried together for a good, long time. I called her the next day. “Helga, do you still believe me? Do you really, honestly know how much we love you?” At that point, I did not care how much time I had to spend convincing her.
“Yes,” she said in a clear voice that removed my doubt. We did not speak of it again.
That day I learned, for most of the time we spend doing our work, there will be no parade.
But, my heart does not really want parades. It wants to hug Helga.