You Mean for Free?
The reaction I get shouldn’t surprise me. I watch the eyebrows raise, the mouth open into a slight O shape, and the “That’s great news!” nod begins. “Congratulations!” they say. Almost everyone assumes I found a job. A paying job, that is.
“Thanks, but I’m actually still looking for work,” I explain. “This is a volunteer thing.” Alas, the happy face melds into a quizzical look, or the blank stare often worn by the person who is trying to not to show what they are thinking – in this case: “Has she lost her mind?” A few seconds of loud silence pass, then, finally, the question: “You mean for free?” Or, “Oh. So, um, you’re not going to get paid?”
Admittedly, I have doubted whether I could even justify volunteering right now. I mean, if you’re broke and competing with the millions of other unemployed Americans struggling to find jobs, shouldn’t you devote everything to finding, you know, actual income? These doubts bring to mind my own reaction when I was first introduced to the idea of volunteering. When I was fifteen my mother informed me that I would be a candy striper over the summer at two local hospitals, one of them a Children’s Hospital. Work – for free? Why? Had she lost her mind?
I believe she was trying to keep me out of trouble, and also to get me out of that teenage mindset, the one that says “the world revolves around me.” She may have had different reasons, but volunteering that summer did achieve these two things. It was only for that one summer, but my experience at Children’s marked me, and I’ve often thought of different patients I had met, from a toddler with cancer to a girl roughly my age who was being treated for anorexia. Some days I spent time with the kids, reading, playing, or just talking to them; other times I delivered mail, ran lab work, or helped on one of the units. The Burn Unit was the most difficult. I don’t know that I could handle that again.
Before the entrance to the Burn Unit was an area where every person entering was required to gown up completely, even if you were only coming in for a minute to deliver the mail. I remember tying the gown over my candy striper dress, stuffing my hair into the cap, pulling the slipper-like covers over my shoes. The severity of these patients’ conditions was already evident, just in the amount of precaution that was mandatory. It only took the first visit on the Burn Unit to make me recognize the necessity of preparing myself emotionally while gowning up. Still, it was impossible to be ready. Even now, I recall the urge to flee, or burst into tears.
He was a couple of hallways down from the entrance, but the sound of his screams reverberated off the cold, sterile hospital walls. Endless cries of agony, growing louder with every step I took toward the nurse’s station. All the rooms had glass walls and doors so the staff could see the patients at all times. I didn’t want to look. I dreaded seeing, but that hadn’t stopped me before. This would be a mistake – already the screams would haunt me; whatever image I saw would become engraved in my memory for years to come. Still, I couldn’t not look.
The body laying there was tall, and the voice clearly that of an adult male. Every part of him I could see (the nurse at his bedside prevented me, thankfully, from seeing more) was wrapped. Completely wrapped in gauze. There were no distinct, identifying features visible. Were it not for his voice, he might have appeared dead.
But he screamed. Over and over the same scream, the same pitch, the same length, the same agony from which he could not escape.
I remember feeling guilty walking through there in perfectly good health while he lie trapped in such excruciating pain. But I walked faster, looking only at the floor until I was out of the unit. I probably went into the Burn Unit again, but that’s the last time I remember. I’ve tried to forget. I’ve thought about other patients, who were also suffering, of a mother’s eighteen month-old who had never been out of the hospital, and wondered why that one man haunted me more than the others. Others have come to mind over the years, but none like him. Even today, I still can’t wrap my hands around any concrete explanation. I only know that it evokes a particular feeling, one that says “I can’t handle this.” The instinct to run, to get away from it as fast as possible.
Many times I left Children’s depressed. It is difficult to imagine anything more heartbreaking than watching a child suffer. But I always went back (and not only because Mom made me). In my early twenties I went back to volunteer on the psych unit and other patient floors while I was a psych major considering concentrating on child psychology. In my thirties I returned again; around that same time I also became a volunteer on the Rape Crisis hotline. I did both for just under a year, neither experience meant to benefit my education (or appease my mother). I was working for free. In fact, not only was there no financial gain involved, but I often finished shifts at the hospital or on the hotline depressed – a personal cost, you might say. When a paying position I had frequently depressed me I was told it was taking a toll on me and I should leave.
So what kept me coming back? There are plenty of opportunities to help that don’t mean being face to face with things as difficult or upsetting as children suffering or victims of sexual assault. I couldn’t answer that. I’d gone back to Children’s because it was familiar, and because I liked being there, and I love kids. I liked seeing a child smile from his hospital bed while I read to him, or making a little girl laugh while wheeling her down to radiology. The immediate and often obvious positive results of the volunteer’s efforts – of my efforts.
The hotline was different though. I feel compelled to do something to help victims of assault and while it obviously wasn’t going to be easy, I was sure I could handle it. It only took the first couple of calls to realize that being able to take those calls and be effective and helpful does not at all mean it won’t affect you. Many of the callers sounded frightened at first, or they cried, but even though they were calmer by the time we hung up, it was a far different experience than knowing you made a sick child smile or laugh for a minute.
Had I done them any good? There’s no way to change what they’ve been through, no way to erase those memories, that trauma. There was nothing I could do to get justice for any of them. Those calls not only disturbed and depressed me, they often made me angry and nurtured a sense of hypervigilance. And sometimes the stress affected me physically too. When I stopped volunteering to focus on studying for my masters exams, I realized how necessary that break was. This work took a toll, and there was no reward (read: children smiling), but still I knew that I’d return to the hotline, or to something similar.
A few years ago a friend and I were talking about human trafficking – an industry which is thriving…and largely ignored. A documentary about American girls sold as sex slaves shocked me and I’ve since felt a burning need to do something, anything, to help those girls. But what also surprised me was the way people would change the subject when I brought it up. My friend said simply, “Not everyone can handle that type of thing.”
True enough. But it made me wonder why, and how I could. Why was I haunted by the patient on the Burn Unit, yet I could take hotline calls from victims of assault? Why do I feel compelled to do something to help trafficking victims, when the commercials for the Humane Society and ASPCA are too much for me to stomach? Is it a question of physical versus emotional trauma? Pain caused by illness versus suffering inflicted by cruel or calloused hands? I’ve tossed this question around in my mind ever since, and still can’t exactly answer it, or give a precise reason why I feel compelled to volunteer, when I desperately need to find a job.
What I do know is this:
My friend was right that not everyone can handle the really dark, disturbing things that go on in our world, like human trafficking, animal abuse and torture, child abuse, sexual assault, or the atrocities committed against entire cultures. And not all of those who are cut out for work in these areas are willing to go there, so to speak. Because that further reduces the number of people who can and will help in these arenas, I believe those who can have some amount of moral obligation to do so. Not to devote their lives to a cause, or to do so at extensive personal cost – but to contribute in any way, even if it seems small. Even simply talking about an issue creates awareness.
Still, the question I’ve heard so many times: that’s got to be awful – why would you want to get involved with that? Personally, because something drives me to these causes, to these people. Something I do not entirely understand just yet.
People often say “In giving, I get so much back,” and that may be true for them, but it seems so cliché to me it kind of makes me nauseous. And it has little, if anything, to do with my own motivations. I do not believe helping others is an act of compassion or generosity if it is being done with the ultimate goal of gaining something for oneself. (which is not to suggest withholding help that others need. They can benefit regardless of the helper’s motives. But pretending it is an act born of some passionate belief or desire to contribute to a common good is tantamount to a person calling himself religious simply because he goes to church. Attendance alone does not make one a good Christian. Corporations who make huge donations only to show the public their good will are merely showing that they are thinking of themselves.)
Where did the notion come from that helping others has to make you feel good or benefit yourself? Or that a person who goes to the streets to help homeless or risks their safety being part of an underground railroad for victims of domestic violence is out of their mind for doing so? I don’t think of it as “working for free.” I don’t think about how it is going to benefit me or make me a changed person. I know that this is something I am supposed to do. For whatever reason, working with victims of violence or any kind of abuse, or of trafficking is something that can and will get to me – but I can handle it and am willing. Getting paid has nothing to do with this. Why should I want to get involved when there are others who do it? Because why not me? Because those victims didn’t have a choice. They were forced to deal with their experiences, and my life is a luxury in comparison. Choice is a luxury.
There must be a reason I feel strong enough to work with victims of violence or abuse. What that reason is might not be clear to me yet, but one thing is: I do this because the cost of doing nothing is far higher than whatever this work takes from me. Because feeling so strongly about these causes, doing nothing to help is simply not an option. And because every time I see someone shaking her head saying “how awful,” then abruptly changing the subject, I remind myself that I also have to turn away, when I see those Humane Society commercials. We all have areas where we can help, and those where we simply can’t. But if we don’t, who will?