Monday, January 16, 2006

Social Inaction

On paper, I'm the ideal candidate for a volunteer position. I'm an empty nester, my husband manages to support the family with no help from me, and I have skills that many organizations could probably use--typing, editing, filing, answering phones, designing web pages. Hey, I even speak Spanish! But guilty though it makes me feel, I've never been able to get on board the social action wagon.

Not that I haven't tried. Way back in the seventies, I worked at one of the first wholistic health centers in the nation--the San Andreas Health Center in Palo Alto. I acted as a receptionist several days a week, answering phones, greeting clients, fielding questions. I enjoyed the people and was very interested in the work the center was doing. In fact, my motives for volunteering weren't pure at all. I wanted to try out the various services and my volunteer status entitled me to discounts for such exotic fare as rolfing, biofeedback, and encounter groups. I was more like an indentured consumer, working off my various therapies by manning the front desk.

Later, after I had my first child, I was grateful to Warmlines, a networking organization for parents, so I worked for a while manning their phones. Being new to town when Aaron was born, I'd felt isolated and lonely. Through Warmlines, I connected with other first-time mothers who became some of my closest friends. I wanted to return the favor. But even with such altruistic motives, I didn't last long at the job. I've never been great at phone tasks--my answers to questions are always more complicated than necessary. And I began to resent licking envelopes and doing other grunt work. Before long, I bowed out.

Onward and upward to "meaningful" volunteer work. I decided I'd offer my help to Greater Boston Legal Services. After all, I had my J.D. and was a member of the Massachusetts Bar. Why not do something challenging and at the same time help indigent people? Plus, there would be something in it for me--I'd use my legal skills and that way keep them from deteriorating until I was ready to enter the real job market. GBLS greeted me with open arms, apparently thrilled to have me. I was assigned to work with an attorney who promised me lots of interesting work. So I eagerly signed on. No matter that I'd have to pay a sitter while I worked and also pay for parking in Boston. But each time I arrived at the office, my attorney never seemed ready for me, never had any work set out, never utilized my expertise. She'd scurry around looking for something to keep me busy after I'd arrived. More make-work. So I was paying for a sitter and parking in order to spend several boring hours a week in downtown Boston. No thanks.

After that, I stuck to more child-centered volunteer options, performing a variety of services at my kids' schools as they made their way through the grades. Again, my aims weren't exactly unselfish. Volunteering at school enabled me to form good relationships with teachers and staff while getting a firsthand glimpse of what went on in the classrooms.

My most recent attempt at social action occurred not long ago, when I was invited to help start a Restorative Justice project. It seemed like a great idea--working together, lawyers, social workers, and the local police would design an innovative approach to juvenile justice. Offenders and victims would meet in a supportive setting with other community members and the aim would be to find ways offenders could make meaningful restitution to their victims. We had a number of meetings, launched several pilot projects, and I even wrote a grant proposal to fund the effort. But the group seemed more interested in process than results, with meeting after meeting yielding little progress. Frustrated, I finally severed my ties. As far as I know, the project still hasn't gotten off the ground.

Fast forward to January, 2006. I called the Wellness Community in Miami, where Eric and I plan to spend a good part of the winter. The Wellness Community
helps cancer survivors cope with post-diagnosis issues. The director seemed delighted at my offer of help, though she warned me it would be mostly "administrative" (code for answering phones and licking envelopes). Still, I've heard that it's a terrific organization. And I've been feeling guilty. I should be giving something back to the community, here and up north. I made an appointment to meet the director.

In the days leading up to the appointment, I found myself thinking about the notion of volunteerism. In all my previous efforts, I never felt as if I were making much of a difference. I might feel virtuous, but I wasn't changing the world in any meaningful way. Maybe I didn't stick with it long enough. Maybe my expectations were too high. But sometimes it seems as if social action does more for the psyches of volunteers than for its recipients.

So when the Wellness Community director called me on the morning of our appointment to say she couldn't meet with me that day after all, I wasn't exactly disappointed. More like relieved. She hadn't realized it was MLK day, she said, and besides, the computers were down and she needed to attend to that. She sounded somewhat discombobulated. Shades of my GBLS experience?

We rescheduled for next week, which will give me plenty of opportunity to rethink the whole idea. At the moment, making a financial donation as opposed to volunteering my time is loo
king pretty attractive. I'll keep you posted.

1 comment:

judyisroff said...

Once again, a delightful way to start my day. You have a gift for putting into rather elegant words that which I often think but neither verbalize or even formulate. Isn't that the definition of a true artist?