Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why I Volunteer

The kids and I were perched at the kitchen counter the other day and I was doing my television producer imitation (family style), including a rundown of the show for the day. In our kitchen, there’s no whip from London to Kabul – just the endless monorail ride (Mom, chief engineer) from middle school to high school to the mall to rehearsal to practice to the orthodontist to home.
My story segment sounded something like this: “Then I’m dropping off the dish for the teacher thank-you lunch, then I’m heading to school for a tutoring session, and don’t forget I’ve organized that food shelf cleanup tonight.”

Angie, our exchange student, (and, as usual, the only one listening to me) asked, “Why do you volunteer like this?”

I paused, not even realizing that the last several activities I had outlined were, in fact, unpaid. I thought back on the past week, during which I had helped with silent auction donations and set up for a fundraiser for Families with Children from Asia, assisted kids in casting ballots in the mid-term elections for Kids Voting Minneapolis, held some babies at the Crisis Nursery -- and, as we used to say for incentive videos I scripted long ago – more, much more.

Angie stumped me with that question. I am a “what and when and how” kind of woman these days, and I usually don’t have much time for “why.” So I offered her a generic, “I like to help out” sort of answer, one that really didn’t address what she’d asked, and then I brooded about it all day.

Why DO I volunteer, anyway? My dance card started filling up in earnest three years ago, when I looked at my life and decided that I hadn’t gone out of my way for anyone who wasn’t my child in way too many days. So I made a new year’s resolution to say “yes” to every single volunteer activity that anyone asked me to do for the next 12 months.

It was a full year, but, in the way of volunteering, one that brought satisfaction, fun and many new friendships. I was just congratulating myself on a resolution well done, when a friend suggested we meet for coffee on December 30 and asked me to volunteer for my third stint on the Families with Children from Asia Board of Directors. “Did you know about my resolution?” I asked. She smiled. Word must have gotten around. But she’d sandbagged her way in, just under the wire, so I complied. And of course, the whole friends-fun-accomplishment soundtrack can start playing now, because serving on the Board, in charge of service project development, has been a great experience.

So the resolution accounts for some of the “what,” but still doesn’t cover the “why” of Angie’s question. I pondered it some more as I drove to Southwest High School, where I volunteer as a writing tutor after school. I was assigned to Abdi, a skinny freshman with a big smile, who told me he had “many many many” five paragraph essays to write. He decided to tackle a character analysis first, from The Bean Trees, a book I remembered fondly, but vaguely. He typed in a few clumsy sentences, along the lines of “They were alike and also very different.” Then I started to ask questions, and I was, as they say, sore amazed. Turns out he’d not only read the book, but he’d memorized whole sections. More, he’d thought about the characters and had strong opinions on their motivations; he was just having trouble putting all his thoughts into words.

It didn’t take much effort on my part. A few starters like “Do you think that’s why she acted that way?” and “Is that what helped her understand what was really going on?” were all he need to get going. I looked over his shoulder and corrected a few things that spell check wouldn’t. When he decided to start a sentence with “Moreover,” I gave him a high five and told him that “moreover” is like crack for English teachers.

And then, in the way that always happens when people work together, the real stuff happened. First, he apologized for his spelling. “You know, this isn’t my first language; I am from Somalia, so I struggle.” I agreed with him that English was awfully hard to learn, and then I told him how my boyfriend Mr. Winston Churchill still said that it was the best and richest language in the whole world. It occurred to me that he thought Mr. Churchill and I had a thing going on right now, and I decided not to explain.

Work proceeded apace. The more questions I asked, the more Abdi realized that he already had all the sentences he needed; he just had to hit the keys and get this thing going. We were exclaiming about his brilliant use of “On the other hand” (another rock in the English teacher’s crack pipe, I promised) when the librarian told us to be quiet.

Abdi confessed, “I am always in trouble for my loudness. It is because I am Somali.” He puffed out his bony chest and thumped it. “We are proud to be ourselves, proud of what we say! But,” he confessed, “here at school, my friends say, ‘Abdi, I am right here, don’t shout at me.'” He shook his head, laughing at himself.

“It’s okay,” I told him, “My family is Irish. They’re loud AND drunk, so at least your people are sober.”

He liked that one.

The Media Center was closing, and we finished up the paper. For a moment, we both sat and stared at the screen, satisfied. In my world, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than writing exactly what you meant to say, writing it well, and, of course, being done. I was happy to share a little of that satisfaction with him.

The most important stuff always gets said at the front door, and this session was no exception. As he stuffed all his books into his backpack (such thin shoulders, I thought, to carry so much), he told me about his college plans. I asked about majors. Criminal justice, he told me. “My dad was killed by a rival clan in Somalia when I was two,” he told me, “and I don’t want anyone else to ever have to feel like that.”

Well, that stopped me. I put a hand on his arm. “Abdi, I am so sorry.” Big smile from him. And then he said, loudly, “It’s okay. Just be here next week and help me with my next paper, okay?”

We parted ways at the front door.

I thought about how to answer Angie’s question. Why do I volunteer? Because I only have so many hours on this earth, and I get to choose how to spend them. I thought of the hours that fill so many of my days, spent cleaning up things I didn’t get dirty, cooking food I don’t want to eat, taking people places I don’t want to go or listening to the people around me blither on like Charlie Brown grownups. If that’s 90 percent of the pie chart of my life, I need to save a sliver for something else, to make some space for hearing what Abdi has to tell me.

And that, for lack of a better answer, is why I volunteer.

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