Volunteering has been an important part of my adult life. I have served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations, including as a charter board member of a group that provides free legal services to victims of domestic violence. I know that serving on these boards provided a valuable service to organizations pursuing noble goals. But in these positions, I felt too far removed from the good work being done “in the trenches.”
I have also had experience with “hands on” volunteering. When I was in my twenties, I spent one night a week in a church preparing tax returns for low-income individuals, pro bono. I served as a court advocate for adults-both women and men-seeking restraining orders to protect themselves from domestic violence. For several years I was a docent at an historical synagogue in New York City that is now a museum, dedicated to telling the story of Jewish and other immigrant groups who came through the Lower East Side upon arriving in the United States.
However, all of the above made me tense and anxious before, during, and after my shifts. Apprehensions of all sorts ran through my mind. What if they found me dull or not particularly helpful? What if I gave them incorrect information? What if I simply did a lousy job?
I was not surprised by these emotions. I have never been comfortable around strangers. I hoped that once I immersed myself in the experience, I would begin to feel competent and at ease. Sadly, that was not the case.
I know volunteering isn’t about me or my needs. In my opinion, if you volunteer in order to feel personally fulfilled, you’re missing the point. You do it to ease someone’s suffering, to make a difference, large or small, in someone’s life. Nonetheless, I didn’t think it was selfish to look for a position that was a better fit for me. I felt my misgivings and limitations were making me a less than effective volunteer.
A friend of mine suggested I volunteer for the organization where she works. Its mission is to provide comprehensive care, close to home, for children with cancer and blood disorders and their families. Its network of outpatient clinics comprises seven pediatric hospitals in the NJ/NY/Philadelphia area that serve over 6,000 children a year.
The organization was founded by a couple who lost their nine-year-old daughter to cancer over 40 years ago. During their daughter’s illness, they had to travel hours-sometimes more than once a week-in order for her to receive the best treatment. This exacted a profound toll on the entire family, including their other young daughter.
They vowed to find a way for children to receive treatment close to home, thereby making the patient more comfortable, and minimizing disruption to the family. Today, the organization provides numerous services-medical and psycho-social. (You can learn more at www.thevaleriefund.org.)
When a child is receiving treatment for cancer or a blood disorder (such as sickle cell disease), they often spend many hours at the hospital. They may be bored or uncomfortable or frightened. Weary parents or caregivers may need a break from sitting on a hard chair jammed into the tiny space between the wall and the child’s bed.
Many pediatric units employ child life specialists whose job it is to minimize the trauma of being in the hospital for patients and their families. In most cases, they are social workers with training for this specific kind of work. They may hold a child to soothe him or her during a procedure, bring toys or video games into the room, sit and talk with the patient, or show the parents and other adults where they can find a cup of coffee and a snack. These examples are a small fraction of a child life specialist’s tasks and responsibilities.
This is where volunteers are able to make a large impact. Under the guidance of the child life specialist, volunteers do activities with the children-play games, assist with a crafts project, read to them, or just have a conversation-and give the adults a chance to be “off duty,” even if just for a few minutes. Volunteers also free up staff who feel as if they are being pulled in ten directions, or need to tend to critical emergent situations.
My friend’s suggestion piqued my interest. I love children and babies. I love just being around them. I am enchanted by their quirky, singular views of the world, the inventive ways in which they express themselves, and their spontaneous hugs. I was 99% certain that my fondness for children would be stronger than my stranger anxiety. Still, I could feel my familiar doubts and misgivings rearing their ugly heads.
My husband is like the Pied Piper. Children flock to him, whether they know him or not. He has an ineffable, child friendly charisma, and a bottomless supply of “make believe” games. As I watch them all smile and giggle, I don’t know who has more fun-my husband or the kids. He never gets tired of playing with them, never says, “OK, I have to go now.”
I do not have my husband’s golden touch. Sometimes kids ignore me, sometimes it is me who just doesn’t know how to engage with them. I lack the imagination to invent games, or come up with silly things to say that will make them laugh, or jump up and down with glee, or exclaim, “More, more,” or “Do it again.” Certainly, this isn’t true all the time, but comparing myself to my husband, I wondered whether I was the right person for this role.
Driving to the hospital for my first volunteer shift, I was excited and nervous-mostly nervous. What if I inadvertently upset a child, or said something that is against hospital protocol? What if the parents or caregivers preferred that I leave? What if I couldn’t find something to interest a child, or became impatient?
The child life specialist led me to a room where a 12-year-old girl rested in bed, her mother and grandmother sitting beside her. Her face was red; the child life specialist told me she had been crying during a procedure a few minutes earlier. She had an IV in her arm and wore flannel pajamas decorated with small bouquets and pink embroidery around the collar. As I looked at the forlorn expression on her face I thought, “Maybe she is in no mood for me.”
To the contrary. She smiled when I introduced myself, and happily agreed to play some games and do some crafts projects with me. We chatted while she decorated a small purse, and played Connect Four and a card game. She giggled with delight when she showed me how she could make a funny sound with a ball of pink slime inside a jar.
There were no awkward silences. As far as I could tell, I hadn’t said anything to upset her, or that sounded “lame” to a 12-year-old. She enjoyed talking to me, and I was able to keep my half of the conversation going. We were both having fun, and I think I took her mind off her illness and needles and being in the hospital-at least for a little while.
Eventually she grew tired; she wanted to lay in bed and watch a movie that was on the TV she shared with the other patient in the room. Once her mom had her settled comfortably on the pillows and under the blanket, I told her that I was leaving. She turned a sad face to me. I asked her if she wanted me to stay and watch the movie with her, and she said yes.
I couldn’t believe it! She liked having me in the room beside her, even if we weren’t talking or playing. In a relatively short amount of time we had forged a connection. I smiled at her while I sat back down; deep inside I was doing cartwheels.
Walking to my car, I reflected on my experience. It occurred to me that I had learned a number of lessons that day.
—Stepping away from an activity I didn’t enjoy did not mean I was a quitter. It didn’t mean I was selfish. When something’s not working or doesn’t feel right, I need to give myself permission to move on to something else.
—No matter what my age, I most likely will not have tapped into all my skills and talents. There is always the potential to discover something new about myself. I grew a lot as a person by walking through-instead of around-my trepidations and allowing myself to try something at which I might fail. So often my knee jerk reaction is to assume I “can’t do XYZ” or “won’t enjoy QRS.” By taking a risk on something out of my comfort zone, however, I may discover a new interest or hobby that brings me pleasure and for which I am well-suited. Except for singing. That is one skill I will never, ever have.
—It is almost always satisfying to connect with someone on a personal level. Everyone has joy in their life, everyone experiences tragedy and grief. Sharing stories, ideas, and feelings with another human being has the potential to heal, soothe, comfort, teach and learn-not just myself, but perhaps the person with whom I interact as well.
I walked out of the hospital that day happy, my spirits buoyed. I want to feel that way more often, but I realize I am the only one who can make that happen. No one is going to hand me happiness on a platter. At times that may mean trying things I think are “out of my league.” But it will be well worth the effort.
I am interested in hearing your reactions to this post. What experiences have you had with volunteering? Have you been in a situation that was out of your comfort zone, only to find that it turned into a positive experience? Have you ever been surprised to discover something about yourself? If so, what were the circumstances, and how did it affect your attitudes or outlook on life? I would be delighted to read your thoughts in the Comments section.
As always, thank you for reading this blog.