Tag Archives: Volunteering

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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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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You Better Recognize!

Well, I lost my phone in the woods (and therefore, my camera) so the beauty of this post just won’t be the same.  A couple weeks ago was National Volunteer Week.  Many people took time during the week to reflect on the meaning of service or make a difference in their community.  What did I do? I got recognized!  Now, anyone who has ever gone to workshops in volunteer management knows that  recognition is high on the list of best practices for volunteer programs.  You know, as an overworked (and usually underpaid) administrator, you’re supposed to ask your boss to add a couple hundred bucks to the budget for a nice celebration.  Needless to say, it doesn’t always happen.

But, Big Brothers Big Sisters did a pretty good job this time.  Capitalizing on the visibility of National Volunteer Week, they took the time to bring “littles” and “bigs” from across greater Portland together for a pizza party.  Ok, so I know you’re probably thinking “Wow – that’s original.  A pizza party?”  Being as arrogant as I am, I was already preparing a rant on modeling behavior and healthy eating habits…and I didn’t even know about the “stuff-your-face-with-ice cream game”.  But, I was actually surprised.  Most of the pizza toppings were veggies and not only did we get to build our own, but the whole thing was a contest for which big/little combo could make the most original pizza.  (Here is where pictures would have been handy).  K. and I chose to make a face, which then morphed into something resembling a puppy, though maybe it was a bald old man.  We were clearly outdone by the “creepy crawly” pizza – these ladies made centipedes and spiders with their toppings.  Our neighbors did up a “flower garden” pizza with brightly colored hydrangeas made of red and orange bell peppers.  There were also monsters, a pacman, and a “leaning tower of pizza” that stood a few inches high…pretty cool.

Following the pizza thing, we watched some of the younger kids do an ice cream eating contest.  K. wasn’t up for me poking her in the eye with a spoonful of chocolate gooeyness, so we just watched and cheered for the frantic competitors.  We still got a bowl at the end (and we actually got the dessert into our mouths, unlike the contest participants).

So, here is the real question: Did I really need to be recognized? Would I be a better volunteer because of a little free pizza? To be honest, for me, the answer is no.  Sure, it is great to get together with other volunteers, but we just sat awkwardly at the table not knowing what to say.  There were games and word searches, but we weren’t really encouraged to use them.  K. and I had a good time, and the outing was free (probably the best part), so that means something.  But realistically, my motivations for volunteering have little to do with a night like this – I get recognition every time K. and I spend a day together.  That being said, there are obviously volunteers who are truly inspired by celebratory functions (yes, you still need to have the awkward conversation with your boss about increasing your program budget).  Want to know what your motivations for volunteering are?  My roomie (and fellow volunteer junkie) KM. passed on this Volunteerism Questionnaire – it only takes a couple minutes to figure out if make-your-own-pizza is the fastest way to your volunteer spirit.

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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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Off the Hook

It’s about time for a volunteer experience done right.  Let me explain…well, actually, let me start with a caveat: I’ve been obsessing about answering phones at the Maine Public Broadcasting Network membership drive for weeks.  The email request showed up in my inbox at 6am one Monday morning (who knows why I was awake) and I responded immediately.  I then convinced a couple friends to join me on a Wednesday evening. That being said, this was the best time I have had volunteering in years and it completely exceeded my exceptionally high expectations.  Let me count the ways of wonderfulness, and please excuse my obvious obsession over public radio.  MPBN Radio Membership

First off, there was the local celebrity.  If you haven’t seen Suzanne Nance, let me just say she is much more entertaining in person than on her show (i honestly can’t handle the classical morning shtick) – but she kept gesticulating and making funny faces at us…it made my day.  Then, there were the snacks – pizza, Tony’s donuts, fresh popcorn and more swedish fish than my sweet tooth could handle.  On top of that, they gave us free demo cds, and my mention of Mustache Cookies via Blueberry Files sent everyone off the wall with how entertaining we were (um…not more entertaining than MPBN, mind you, but close!).  The other volunteers were also great – nothing like having a group of people willing to obsess with you about Garrison Keillor’s red socks or whether Diane Rehm is a better interviewer than Terry Gross.  And just in case none of those things were entertaining enough, they also provided us with crossword puzzles for the down times between calls.

Okay, so all that stuff was wonderful, but what were we actually there for? Using old school phones to take membership donations, of course! No asking for money required….just thanking all the kind people for giving a few bucks to support public radio.  Thank you, my fellow npr/mpbn listeners for recognizing that my life is made substantially better by shows that explain the news in limericks!

All things considered, there is nothing better in this american life than…wait, wait, don’t tell me.…volunteering at MPBN! Oh man, I crack myself up.

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