Thursday, January 19, 2012

Wipe a Nose, Write a Check: What “Service” Really Means

I celebrated our National Day of Service one day early, with my regular volunteer shift at the Crisis Nursery. Dr. King, in his time, organized boycotts, led marches and gave stirring speeches. For my contribution this year, I wiped crusty noses, mopped up drool dribbles, and spoonfed mashed carrots to a toddler. I helped Purpess and Promiss get settled for their naps with a warm bottle and a few stories, and then I went home.

Compared to the accomplishments of a martyred civil rights leader, it seems a little light on vision, achievement and sweeping change.

The MLK Day of Service has been in place since 1994, and it’s the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service. The organizers call it "a day on, not a day off." As someone who volunteers regularly for a number of organizations, I love this idea and I wish it would catch fire in our collective national consciousness. One day a year, couldn’t the malls be closed? Or could schools require that students show up and work in the community? What could all our government's employees, together, accomplish in one day?

If we really embraced this holiday, hands could get dirty and eyes could be opened. As it is, efforts still seem a little weak. Considering that and wondering why, I thought about my own volunteer efforts and the organizations I support.

What I Don’t Do: Write Checks. I have noticed that charities often seem more eager for my cash than for my time. I understand this. I serve on a couple of nonprofits boards, and things are increasingly tight financially. But I also think that the reason I am more often asked for money instead of effort is that volunteers can be more trouble than they’re worth. To have volunteers, you have to have clear, definable jobs for them, and you have to deal with all the things they might be bringing to the endeavor, like sloppy work, loud opinions or a generally poor representation of your organization. They have to be trained, supervised and often praised excessively. Checks, on the other hand, just have to be cashed.

What I Do: Show Up. The last time I looked, I seem to have misplaced my trust fund. I don’t have the economic resources to pony up a lot of cash, but I can give an hour or two to a worthy cause, if they ask. I go the Crisis Nursery and wipe noses. I show up at my local public high school and help kids with their college essays. I write press releases for a youth theater company.

What I Wish I Could Do: How much time have you got? Maybe it’s all for the best that I wasn’t born with a big comfortable pile of old family money. For one thing, I never would have left school, and I’d currently be working on my sixth Ph.D. For another, I’d think that writing checks was enough. I’d go to galas and balls and charity dinners, dressed in swell duds, and I’d outbid everyone else for the silent auction and be the honorary chairwoman at a couple fabulous events every year. But I’d miss out on the nose wiping, and the spelling help and the chance to sit in cramped meetings with people who are passionate about their issues, and who desperately need just a little bit of practical help.

I realize that, in many ways, I am far from the ideal nonprofit supporter. Showing up to work, on time, is great. But funding the Julie Kendrick Wing of Whatever We Want would probably be better. Still, I do what I can, even without that honorary chairmanship to the charity ball. And all I can do, as I often tell myself, will have to do, at least for now.

There are the people who lead the march on Washington, and there are the people who give Promiss a bottle before her nap, and I think I know which kind of person I’ve turned out to be.

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