Category Archives: Volunteering


The other night, a few friends and I volunteered with the Salvation Army to collect some change for their programs in Maine.  It was surprisingly fun – we rang the bells for so long that I can still hear them, and we even managed to belt out a few holiday carols for passers-by.  I don’t have any amazing thoughts on the whole experience, so enjoy these pictures and random facts:

The group of us (because it clearly took 8 people) hanging out around the Salvation Army kettle.

Fact #1: The Salvation Army’s red-kettle campaign is its most important fundraiser of the year, as money raised helps the organization assist others and handle its ongoing operating expenses.

Ring my bell...

Fact #2: Funds from Red Kettles (the Portland affiliate hopes to raise $150,000 this year) support soup kitchens and transitional shelter for the homeless, activities and programs for at-risk children, care and essential services for seniors, and more based on local needs.

Fact #3: Supposedly, this kettle was once a B&M Baked Beans pot…the only baked bean company that still actually bakes its beans.

So, in four hours at the Maine Mall Food Court, we were able to raise a whopping $46.92 and were totally outdone by the Telephone Pioneers who were at Sears with NO BELLS (?!?) and brought in $103.34.  Damn them.  Oh, and Fact #4: There is such a thing as Telephone Pioneers…who knew?



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Summer Rocks

Well, summer is coming to a close. So long, days where I procrastinate and push off even the simplest tasks for another day (or season).  No more sipping sangria on outdoor porches or helping my roomie pretend to be sick just so we can skip work and lounge at the beach all day. And, I’m going to get back on schedule with this whole blog thing…maybe.

You may think that I’ve put off volunteering over the past month or so as well – I mean, it happens to the best of us, right? Not me, my friend, not me.  In fact, I took advantage of the summer days by going on an extended vacation in Maine’s 100-mile wilderness.  You can get a brief overview of the area in this month’s Maine Magazine, but all you really need to know is that this place is freaking remote.  Of course, I ended up there after K. suggested (in March) that we volunteer with the Maine Appalachian Trail Crew – seemed like a fabulous idea back in the dead of winter to bust our asses doing trail work for a week.

We started off from Portland, driving a couple hours to the MATC’s base camp in Garland, Maine.  Our crew was made of a couple AmeriCorps volunteers (of course), a crew leader, and one other volunteer.  Setting off at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning, our small group headed out in a 15-passenger van reminiscent of my days back in AmeriCorps*NCCC.  The 2.5 hour drive to our site was mostly on dirt roads – I promptly fell asleep to avoid a retched case of car sickness as I tried to preserve some semblance of being bad-ass enough to undertake the upcoming backpack trip with all our gear.  As it turned out, the hike was pretty short (thank goodness).  No time was wasted as we set up camp in the White Cap Mountain Range and headed to work building a stone staircase through the woods. The rest of our week was spent in pretty much this one spot, moving rocks inch by inch to create a beautifully manicured trail.  I learned all kinds of things during our time on the mountain – how to climb trees with slings, set up high-wire rigging to move boulders, and the beauty of  a rock bar.  By the end of the week, I could practically move a half-ton boulder with my pinky.  At least that’s how I remember it.

There is no elevator up here, man.

Now, I should mention that our trip took place on the Appalachian Trail – for those of you who haven’t bothered to read anything by Bill Bryson, you might want to know that the AT is sort of filled with freaks.  There are all these people who’ve been hiking for like half a year and don’t really remember normal social cues.  The AT isn’t really for me – I avoided all the through-hikers like the plague and even began to shirk the casual hikers who constantly asked when we would be replacing the staircase with an elevator.  Despite the weirdos, it was an amazing place, though.

If you bothered to read the Maine Mag article, you’ll note a reference to “eco-tourism” – something Maine has quite the potential for, but does little to promote.  Our state, in fact, could be a perfect place for “eco-voluntourism” (if I can just coin that phrase, right now)… we are VacationLand, after all.  What better than a little economic boost triggered by groups of people interested in giving a little time and money to a good cause in our lovely state?

Oh, beautiful Maine...

I’m not exactly prepared to start the movement myself, but if you’re interested in a few opportunities that involve good sights + making the world a better place, consider looking into the following:

Maine Appalachian Trail Club: Help preserve and protect the Appalachian Trail in Maine

Maine Island Trail Association: Travel Maine’s coast while cleaning up our local islands

Camp Sunshine: Stay in Maine’s Lakes Region while volunteering at this camp for children with terminal illnesses

Common Ground Fair: Camp in style at the Common Ground Fair in Unity – held the 3rd week of September, this fair features organic food and farming activities from across Maine

Know of other great opportunities for volunteering while vacationing in Maine? Share them here – I’d love some ideas for next year.


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Disaster Squared

Volunteers looking to help out in an emergency are a disaster.  That’s what she said.  Actually, what she said is that they are disaster within a disaster.  Great.  Here I am, being trained to setup a Volunteer Reception Center, or VRC, and the first thing I learn is that spontaneous and unaffiliated volunteers during a disaster can be a total pain.  You know these people – they are the ones that run toward the storms, standing out in a field when it’s lightening out or something.  People much less risk-averse than me.

Our recent past has been a little too full of disasters.  This year alone we had the Haiti earthquake and Gulf Coast Oil Spill. So, how were volunteers handled?  Well, a quick search of recent news items reveals headlines like “Volunteers ready but left out of spill cleanup” and “Gung-ho but untrained, volunteers hit a wall in helping mitigate gulf oil spill“.

I haven't made it to the Gulf for the latest disaster, but I was sure there after Katrina.

So, what can you do now to make sure you aren’t one of those untrained, spontaneous volunteers if there’s a disaster in your ‘hood?

– Get in touch with your local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) or Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD) to find out about trainings offered by organizations in your area.  Visit HERE to find an affiliate in your state.

– Make sure you and your business or organization have an emergency plan.  FEMA offers a guide for business and industry, and is a great resource for individuals.

– Sign up for a virtual VRC.  In Maine, when you create an account with, you’re asked, “Would you consider volunteering in the event of an emergency or disaster?”.  Say YES!  You’ll be asked to provide contact information and an overview of your skills so that managers know if you’d be a good fit to volunteer during a particular disaster.

– Contact your local chapter of the American Red Cross – they have a full curriculum of training for disaster preparedness.  Become a Master of Disaster and you could be deployed to disasters throughout the country.

One thing I do know how to do is muck out. Yucky.

– Additional trainings can be found through your local churches (many offer sessions to learn how to “muck out”, work a chainsaw, be an early responder, etc).  There are also opportunities online for training – one upcoming session will be held on July 28, 2010.  Register at

Knowing your limits as a volunteer is one of the best ways to help out during an emergency.  Yes, it is hard to hear when you aren’t needed, but be honest about your skills and abilities.  Get trained for jobs you’d be interested in before a disaster hits (or at least before you try to get involved).  And, don’t forget that most disasters take a LONG time to clean up – there is generally an immediate outpouring of people willing to donate their time and money, so your help may be needed most weeks, months, or even years after the initial disaster.

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Sometimes You Just Have to Say “No”

I’m starting to notice some patterns in my posts – mainly that I’m a little critical of other people’s volunteer management skills.  Well, I wish I could say this is different, but I can’t.

So here we are, a group of friends trying to plan a summer weekend that involves some fun and some service.  K. #2 finds a cool opportunity and decides that an overnight camping trip with an early morning to race registration for Tour de Cure is the perfect fit.  We thought more people would be into it, but only three of us committed.  At the volunteer “orientation” (I think I wrote about that horrid experience in May), we met a woman who offered her backyard for our camping adventure – that made things a little easier since our other option wasn’t exactly legal. I’ll spare you the details of how difficult it was to figure out what we were scheduled to do in the morning (and at some points we were scheduled for Saturday or Sunday afternoon, times we didn’t actually offer to work).  What you do need to know is that we were told we’d be on food – making lunch.  That was sort of clear (or so we thought).  When we arrived at the high school gym at 6:30am (!) there was nothing to do.  I ate some pancakes and stared at a wall for a few minutes.  Then S. and I (there are four of us now) found some other volunteers making a balloon arch.  What fun!  Our boredom and clear skills in volunteer management soon led to everyone listening to us like we were in charge – and we made the coolest balloon arch EVER.

At least I learned how to make a balloon arch. Valuable skills, I swear.

That took about an hour.  We milled around a bit more and realized that there were some signs that needed to be hung outside.  S., who probably saw the movie Up! a few too many times, suggested that we float the signs with balloons.  Brilliant!  We harangued a good number of people into helping out with the endeavor and spent another hour insisting that the signs would float with “just a few more” balloons.  Eventually, we got it to work, though we were slightly disappointed that the wind made them fall right back to the ground.  Oh, well.  Our next adventure involved cooking pizzas on a grill – we made one test pizza and then were informed that four more volunteers were there to relieve us.  So, we went home.

Now, I totally understand scheduling more volunteers than you need – you never know who is going to get sick or just not show up at the last minute.  But, learn to say “NO”, people!  We drove 45 minutes to get up at 6am and have something to do.  Anything, in fact, would have been nice.  And, if you realize that there isn’t anything for us to do – tell us to go home! It’s ok.  I promise.  I can find other things to do with my Sunday morning.


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What Rhymes with Volunteer? Beer.

Every once in a while I decide to volunteer for something for selfish reasons – usually it ends up alright, but not this time.  Since I work my friend K. into every blog post like she’s “Where’s Waldo?”, I’ll go ahead and mention that I signed up for this event (called Taste of the Nation) because of her.  She didn’t actually do anything, but K. likes food and so I thought we could volunteer together at this foodie event and she could teach me a thing or two.  Turns out she had other plans, which is probably where things started to go wrong.  Well, I can’t blame it all on her…I did have a handful of other friends there with me.

So, let me explain – this event we’re at is all about food and cocktails, wine and beer, and looking fancy (at least if you paid the $95 to get in).  If you’re a volunteer, it’s about a 6 hour shift with one (yes, ONE) greasy piece of pizza.  I should rephrase – if you’re a good volunteer.  Despite my pro-service intentions, sometimes a just suck as a volunteer.  I started out alright – we were supposed to be clearing out dirty glasses and plates, but I soon felt like I was competing with other volunteers for who could take the trash out fastest.  Not my favorite game.  Instead, I found my old buddy B. who happens to own a brewery…that brewery just happened to be serving beer at the event.  So, B. stratigically placed glasses of beer for us volunteers to “clear out”.  I tried to control myself, I really did….but then I made friends with a bartender who insisted that I take a shot of bourbon…and then my friend A. took over the tap for another beer company.  So, my day went: run, eat a granola bar, walk to volunteer event, eat a piece of pizza, clear trash for 5 hours while drinking,…. you can see where I’m going.  Not enough food and too much free booze was not a good thing.

Now, other than coloring myself as a lush, what can you take away from this?  First of all, let me point out that I wasn’t even the worst volunteer there.  A handful of people clearly knew the scheme and strategically chose not to put on their volunteer t-shirts.  They turned their volunteer nametag around and soon they looked exactly like all the VIP members who paid over $100 to get in.  I pointed this  out to one of the volunteer managers (he insisted they were VIPs) and then watched them eat and drink to their heart’s content.  So – maybe you should insist on the dress code, or at least change the color of the nametags.  I also noticed some crazy bartering system between the volunteer wine pourers and the chefs making food…but I think they were on to something.  Second, give me more than one damn piece of pizza!  There could be volunteer food tickets good for a couple food/drink items, then maybe I wouldn’t have been going on an empty stomach.  Oh, and I want a break, too.  Most waitresses would have made $300 that night…I on the other hand have a scraped knee from tripping over my own sorry ass.

Ok, I can’t blame the organizers completely.  But I’m curious – how do you motivate volunteers at an event like this to do their job and not just sneak off to party?  Are there ways to let them partake in special treats while still getting the job done? Or, is this how it is all supposed to go – some volunteers sort of suck and the others pick up the slack?  Maybe I’ll investigate this situation next year (but I’m totally signing up as a wine pourer).


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The volunteer orientation was doomed from the start.  I’ll admit that it was partially my mistake – somehow I decided that it started at 6:30 (rather than 6pm).  I had enough warning from K. to know I was late, but it was still a shock to show up and find all the ground level doors to the building locked.  I sneaked into the side door behind a maintenance guy and hopped into the elevator, pushing the 7th Floor button.  Actually, I pushed 8 on accident and then started hitting all the buttons, so by the time I got to the 11th floor I was shouting that the damn thing hadn’t stopped anywhere.  A woman got on and kindly told me that I needed a key to get to the correct place – something she didn’t have.  Somehow I found someone who could get to the 8th floor, so I got off and promptly locked myself in the stairwell.  Thank god for cellphones.

Anyway, that was just the beginning.  More than half an hour late at this point, I was surprised to find my friends asking questions of other volunteers like “What is this race, again?”.  Pretty sure the format of the race should have been one of the first things we learned.  The Tour de Cure is a bike ride that benefits the American Diabetes Association – about 1000 riders troll around Kennebunkport, Maine in support of research, prevention, and some other part of their mission that has already slipped my mind.  We were planning to volunteer at registration early on race day (coming in June) after a night of camping.  Despite the numerous emails and time spent on the phone with ADA staff confirming our assignment (thanks to K.#2), it turns out that we are going to be helping out with lunch…we think.

This volunteer “orientation” consisted of other new volunteers trying to figure out what the hell is going on.  We spent about 45 minutes discussing who was leading the meeting and what we all were there for.  At first, I honestly thought about bolting, but with such a small group of us, it didn’t seem too appropriate.  But, as the meeting progressed, it got better and better.  Here we were, a group of volunteer managers drilled in the ways of best practices, listening to people who truly had no clue what a volunteer orientation should look like.  That being said, the volunteer leaders were passionate, detail-oriented, and incredibly nice (they even offered their yard for our camping adventure).  I figure that there is something to be said for enthusiasm in volunteer activities – maybe even more than professionalism.  I was about ready to sign up for the 2am pizza cooking shift just to help out (who needs sleep, anyway).

The end of the meeting was even more absurd than the lack of leadership, planning, or direction of our orientation.  They were giving out stuffed teddy bears for us to answer simple questions about the ADA.  But it happened twice.  No, seriously.  They had us in one room and asked us what the acronym SAG stands for.  Then, they took us into another room and asked the same question for the same cheesy stuffed animal prize.  And, no, I don’t remember what SAG is.

Lessons learned? Train your staff. Don’t call  a planning meeting an “orientation”.  Have project planners communicate before sitting down with other volunteers.  Tell people that the doors lock at six and which elevators to use.  Don’t waste my time with lame trivia questions.  Oh, and I’m a sucker for nice people…so I’ll forgive you for everything else if you keep them around.  And, I might be a little jealous that you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, especially since I can already tell that the race is going to be a blast.

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Just Beet It

Weeding. Don’t know what comes to mind when you hear that word, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t a good thing, so you might be surprised that out of all the activities I did during National AmeriCorps Week in Maine, weeding was my favorite. Ok, that isn’t totally true, but I struggle to call drinking beer at a SeaDogs baseball game a truly philanthropic act. “Why was weeding so great?”, you ask. Well, being out at Rippling Waters Farm in Steep Falls, Maine brought me right back to one of my earliest volunteer experiences.

You see, in high school, I was in one of those programs where I was (*gasp*) required to complete community service hours to graduate.  A more common requirement these days, mandatory volunteering was a pretty rare thing back in my time.  In order to knock off some of the 150 hours needed, my best friend and I chose to work at the local history museum as historic interpreters – this meant “living” in the late 1800’s on a farm in our hometown just outside of Denver, Colorado.  We were expected to cook meals, do chores, and even play games from that era.  I would walk around in the hottest dress ever and say “Good Day” to the visitors.  I absolutely loved the garden – we’d weed it all day just so the two of us could sit around and gossip.

Not much had changed when I was down in the dirt last week for our service project – I got to know H., P., and J. (all current AmeriCorps members) as we cleared a row for some beet seedlings and chatted about life.    And here, I found the true meaning of philanthropy (or philanthropia as wikipedia tells me): loving what it is to be human.  I won’t go into the whole philosophy of it all, but for those of you unfamiliar with Alexis de Tocqueville, it is worth a little research.  de Tocqueville argued that the voluntary spirit is part of what makes America great – that we can get things done without always relying on institutions like government or churches to do it.  And, through our volunteer efforts we create a democratic civil society.

I don’t know if I really buy the idea that volunteerism is a uniquely American value.  The Ayn Rand Society will tell you that the volunteer ethic is in direct conflict with the American ideal of individualism, as it promotes self-sacrifice.  What I do know is that a day away from the office with dirt under my fingernails, making new friends and soaking up Vitamin D is one of the best reminders of what is so great about being human.  

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Fast Track to a Vegemite Sandwich?

Ever do those word puzzles in the newspaper that make you find the prefix to a set of words? Try this one: What’s a prefix for  -fiche, -scope, and -volunteering?

Give up? Try “micro”.  Maybe some of you don’t remember microfiche, and it’s probably been years since you actually used a microscope, but I’m sure you’re wondering “What the hell is micro-volunteering?”.  Enter The Extraordinaries.  That’s right – this website is made just for you, oh internet-obsessed blog reader.  I’ll admit I was skeptical at first, I mean – what good could I possibly do from my computer? Well, not only could I volunteer from my bed (no judging), but it only takes about 35 seconds to make a difference.  Seriously.

I started perusing opportunities on The Extraordinaries after a prompt from AmeriCorps Alums – they’re using the site to map projects for National AmeriCorps Week.  So, I searched for “trails”, wondering how the land trust I work for might think about using it (obviously there is some paradox when you’re microvolunteering for an organization based on getting people outside) – I found a similar organization who’d asked people to use gps on their phones to map trails.  Now, I was intrigued.  Searching the site a little more, I somehow got stuck volunteering for a museum in Australia that needs help tagging its photo archive.  It’s almost like playing a slightly boring computer game – but you really are helping out! Heck – how many times have I searched our archives for a photo of a kid on a trail on a bike with a helmet to use for some promotional material? Not the easiest task.  If only I had a micro-volunteer, tagging away from the comfort of their own home (or smartphone).

While I see the use for microvolunteering, I am a little concerned.  Isn’t part of the benefit of giving back the connections you create with the organization and other volunteers? Is there really a way to build community through this form of volunteerism? Could it be used to recruit volunteers for other positions in an organization once they’ve helped you on the web? The internet constantly astounds me – so I guess we’ll just have to see how far this microvolunteering thing goes.  As for me, I’ll probably continue to give a few minutes to random organizations like the Powerhouse Museum…maybe they’ll find out I’m such an amazing image tagger that they’ll hook me up with a trip to the Land Down Under.  I’ve been dying to try one of those vegemite sandwiches…


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Dancin’ with Myself

Alright, I’ll admit that I’m a little behind on this post – our Spring Fling event was a few weeks ago.  Would you believe I’ve been too busy volunteering to post about it? Forgive me.

STRIVE is a program focused on addressing the issues of young people with disabilities.  The cornerstone of their program is a weekly Friday Night Social for these teens and young adults to interact with their peers.  A friend of mine from Maine AmeriCorps Alums saw they needed help creating theme nights for the socials and immediately emailed the program to set up a date.  Our group spent a lot of time brainstorming games and crafts for the evening – after much deliberation and a few duds (umm…oragami?!), we came up with our grand plan.  We decided to do cookie decorating, plant potting, tissue paper flowers, an egg hunt, and face painting.

I started out helping with the tissue paper flowers (somehow, I’d been deemed a pro at this), but eventually found myself with a paintbrush in my hand.  The last time I painted anyone’s face was year’s ago, and I’m certainly far from an artist.  But, I was in luck! My first (and only) customer just wanted a rainbow – easy enough! Oh, but then he wanted a woman’s face on his cheek, and a swirly thing on his neck, and a fancy moustache…yeah, and then a full beard.  Turns out my artistry (or lack there of) was completely irrelevant.  The weird thing is, the whole thing made me super sappy.  I seriously almost started crying at how beautiful the moment was – this kid was totally appreciating me and the process more than the outcome of some pretty drawing on his face.  Well, I’m just going to tell myself that since he immediately washed it all off.

After face painting, I got my dance on.  The DJ was an “aged-out” member of STRIVE, volunteering his time to continue involvement with the program.  He was eager to play my request (MJ, of course) and I did the best moonwalk that dance floor had ever seen.  One of the kids, J. grabbed on to a few of us to form a dance circle.  The throng of beautiful woman around him was clearly…shall we say… “exciting” for him.  I’m not that mature, so I bailed after a weak attempt to draw boundaries (“I only dance with myself, J.”).

The only downer of the night was the realization that C. from STRIVE had clearly exaggerated when she told us there would be about 70-100 attendees at the event.  I think we’d be lucky to call it 30-40, which left us with lots of extra cookies and seedlings (obviously something to complain about).

We debriefed over a beer – turns out many of us had rewarding moments like my “this is the best thing ever” thought while slopping brown face paint all over that kid’s face. Guess the old adage is true –  “No one can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”  What are you STRIVING for?


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What’s For Dinner?

If you went to eat dinner at the Preble Street Soup Kitchen on a Friday night in early March, you wouldn’t have too much to choose from.  The menu was limited…Barber Chicken Cordon Bleu, wedge potatoes, and a carrot/bell pepper medley.  Granted, I’ve had skimpier meals (and seen far worse at other soup kitchens in this country), but if you’re Muslim or Catholic (no meat during lent), Friday night’s options would leave you pretty much SOL.  Guess beggars can’t be choosers… And those of us who like to pretend we have a disposable income spared ourselves the free meal and had pizza at Otto.

The volunteer experience was pretty much as expected…chop the carrots, chop the cabbage, butter the bread.  I was there with a group of eight friends, so all that chop-chop-chopping was a fine opportunity to catch up from the week.   The best part was our discovery of the bread slicer – that old saying about “the greatest thing since…” is around for a reason.  It took two of us to turn the thing on, push a loaf of bread through, and pull it out the other end without losing any fingers – but it was completely gratifying! No more 2″ thick pieces of bakery bread, my friends.

As 6 o’clock approached, Lizzy (the kitchen manager) divided us up into different jobs for dinner.  I was in charge of the mixed veggies, which turned out to be the least desirable dish. I tried to force the cold carrots and bell peppers on to one of the few kids in line, but she avoided me like the plague.  All in all, everyone was quite friendly – there were lots of smiles and “pleases” and “thank yous”.  Quite a fine group of people, if you ask me.

Now, here is where things got relatively interesting (or at least if you are a community service nerd like me).  Preble Street recently took over the dinner service from Wayside Soup Kitchen.  Both organizations have different ways of pulling off the soup kitchen thing, and we had a hot debate over the best method.  Was the new Preble way better, where clients have a choice of dessert but have to stand in line for us to slop everything on their plate? Or do they enjoy the old Wayside method of serving everyone while they sit waiting? Was it better to have volunteers interact with clients or maintain a solid routine? Do the clients want to be treated as guests or have control over their serving size?  Ultimately, I don’t think we reached any grand decision as to the  best way to serve the hungry, but it was an interesting debate nonetheless.

So, in the end, the evening was pretty uneventful – just a few friends hanging out at the soup kitchen.  We hadn’t been terribly impressed by Lizzy’s management skills, but as we were leaving she thanked us about 100 times, saying we were the best group of volunteers EVER (so what if she’s only been doing it a couple weeks).  That gratitude alone was enough to make me want to go back, roll up my sleeves, and paint some butter on day-old bread.

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