I have only been here in Denver a few weeks, and I feel like the non-profit world is breaking down so many of my expectations and paradigms. One of the experiences I have had that feeds into this is my work with volunteer groups as they come in to Sun Valley. My organizer-self really gets excited when volunteer groups come because it means for me, making lists, delegating jobs, and watching people make things happen that I could never do.
Volunteer groups can be a deep breath of fresh air for non-profits.
They bring us space to breath and reflect.
They bring reminders of hope and mercy.
They bring new energy and calling.
However, sometimes, unfortunately, volunteer groups can also bring things with them that aren’t always so helpful. And I’d like to share my thoughts on what those things can sometimes be:
Bringing expectations that you are bringing us a day off
Unfortunately this is not the case. Though volunteer groups can give us laughter and hope and cross things off our lists that make us want to cry, they also bring the most exhausting days for us. Now, don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come! Non-profits can rarely keep going without volunteer groups, but being mindful of what your presence for the day or week means for the full time workers can make a huge difference.
What does that look like?
A meaningful thank you can be the connection point for an amazing partnership or friendship. Bringing your own snacks, supplies, and supervisors are tiny things that make a huge difference. Also, being proactive while you work will define what kind of day the full-time staff has. No staff person wants to do laps all day in the midst of their work to constantly point out new things to do. Have new ideas or see something not on the list that needs done? We will rarely tell you no!
Bringing fear of the place that we care about
A time I occasionally feel myself cringing, is during the introduction and safety instructions before a group begins. In a very well-meaning way, the group leader usually makes a remark about where our youth center is located and what that means. I have heard great leaders describe our neighborhood in an intelligent and caring way, but I have also heard leaders pretty much scare the kids into assuming that if they leave the building without an adult their life will turn out like the next sequel of Taken (the movie) without Liam Neeson to save them. Or that every single person is holding a gun under their clothes ready to shoot at any innocent upper-class volunteer who looks at them the wrong way. These types of neighborhoods are not festering pools of people with no morale code.
Mothers live here.
Fathers live here.
Children thrive here.
Instead of fear, we need more volunteer groups to bring respect. Taking into account the past history of the neighborhood and the stats that try to sum up a grouping of humans, but also appreciating the stories, abilities, and characteristics, that these community members have brought to this area. Maybe the neighborhood is a little scary and new, and maybe there are things to be away of. But this is also the neighborhood we love! Our neighbors love and protect, and our children call home.
Bringing a close-minded attitude toward our process
So if you have ever volunteered or partnered with a non-profit, you might have noticed that they are their own species. They don’t always look or run the way you are used to seeing businesses look or run. Most non-profits are held back in a lot of ways because of their monetary needs, and rely on creativity and resourcefulness to stay thriving and impactful. So when you walk into a non-profit and they seem disorganized, stuck, focused on things you aren’t used to, small, or taking the hard route over the seemingly easier one, please try to remember that the life of the non-profit is one where the odds are stacked against you.
Though it may seem silly to you that we are trying to sell you a bumper sticker with our name on it, please believe us when we say that the money from it truly feeds our kids for several days or allows them to go on a Friday field trip. And when a non-profit may be using old technology or resources, remember that it is not usually the choice of the non-profit what they are donated.
This seemingly confusing place that you, maybe, think you could run so much more effectively, is here because of passionate, Jesus-loving people who are creating safe places like that one, for others to flourish.
Bringing the need to feel good at the end of your time there
In most instances, when I am wrapping up time with a group, there are those cool, jubilant moments when the kids or adults get to walk around and see the “after” affect. There are inside jokes and high fives, and tired but smiling faces. It is one of my favorite times. However, there is almost always someone–or a few someones–who look out and only see what still needs to be done. Or I have even see some walk away looking plain defeated after spending a day in a new, hard environment like the non-profit world. Now, I am almost always that person that sees the looming list of to-dos at the end of the day, so I understand.
The fact is that you really shouldn’t always feel good after volunteering in a hard and different place. Should you feel grateful for what was done and the time spend there? Yes, sure. But I think when the focus is feeling good at the end, it means that we weren’t allowing ourselves to be uncomfortable enough while we were serving. And maybe we didn’t take time to let our hearts break for where we were and what we saw.
Every day that I am at our youth center I have to choose how much I am going to let the kids effect me. It is so much easier to feel awesome about cleaning and organizing the entire kitchen area, then sitting down with a kiddo from a really hard place and listen to them and try to love on them. As a volunteer it is so much easier to walk away from a place you do not understand and feel uncomfortable with when you have at least fixed something or dirtied up your hands a little to change it. We then feel the permission to brush of the dirt and say we did or part, without allowing ourselves to feel anything. We Americans are pretty good at that.
The most effective volunteer, in my opinion, is the one that comes ready to learn and ask questions more than get stuff done. She is the volunteer who is kind of grumpy afterward and doesn’t know how to process the fact that her life, for some reason, looks so different from the lives of the people in our neighborhood.
Feeling uncomfortable means you are letting yourself be changed and molded by that experience.
In conclusion, please know that volunteering is a powerful thing. It can bring with it some amazing things. But being mindful while volunteering creates an experience that completely changes the way you see your world and the people in it.
“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” –Mother Teresa
photo cred: childrensministryleader.com