Category Archives: Volunteering

Where the Spirit Is

In my last post I wrote about Christmas and the spirit of giving – a spirit that too often seems forgotten, crowded out by consumerism.  I felt that I’d said what needed to be said about the contradiction between what we see on “the beginning of the season,” Black Friday, and what the season is supposed to represent, but have since felt that I left something out.  What Christmas spirit isn’t is clear, but I want to give some examples now of what I believe it is.  In so doing, I hope some of these ideas will strike a chord with some of you out there, and that we will see more of the true spirit of the season.

Do a Google search for “volunteers+Christmas” and you’ll find no less than 85,900,000 results. Seems like a good starting point, non?  Following are some of the things you can do on Christmas or around the holidays, as well as some of the causes that have a solid and permanent place in my heart.  This, for me, is Christmas.  So here you go…

First, two volunteer projects specifically for those who want to give to children: Be an Elf, a project of the USPS, where volunteers read letters to Santa written by children in need, and when you find one (or a few) that move you, take them home, respond, and send it back with gifts:

And Operation Christmas Child, from Samaritan Purse, where you can pack a shoe box with gifts that will go to a needy child overseas.

Find a local shelter for families, or for women and children, like Access Shelter, for example,, and call to find out how you can do something for these kids for Christmas (or throughout the year.  Why wait until December every year to do something for someone else?). A three year-old boy at the shelter asked, “How will Santa know where I am? How will he find me this year?”  At Access you can “Adopt a Family,” (shelters everywhere have similar programs) and bring Christmas to them, since they have no home to go to for the holidays.

Don’t – and I mean, quite seriously do not  – go to a pet store to buy a dog or cat for your children.  Most of the time these

The severe neglect common in puppy mills

animals come from puppy mills, and spending your money there is what keeps the *&!#@! losers who run those places in business.  Instead, find an animal who has been abused or neglected (sadly, this is not hard to do) and give them a home filled with the love they deserve – the love they have been deprived of far too long.

In fact, I’ll even direct you to one right now: Black Beauty, they call her.  And she is a beauty, despite scars all over her body from, they believe, having been either set on fire or burned with acid.

This – and you’d better grab some tissues before you click play on this one – is what you can do for an animal who has been abused, neglected, or raised in a lab as a medical guinea pig:

I cried like a baby when I watched this video, (from ARME (Animal Rescue, Media, and Education) about the Beagle Freedom Project) which is both horribly disturbing and also triumphant.  This is giving.  It is selflessness.  And it is love.

This, is Christmas.


I Can’t Handle This

Guest Post by Linda G. White

Response to “You Mean for Free?”

Laura asked me to do a blog in conjunction with hers – a mother-daughter blog.  And I wanted to. I love being a part of her life. We talk about books and ideas.  We often like spending our time, what little of it there is that’s free, doing the same kinds of things: going to movies, reading, writing, and running around Cleveland tracking down Robert DeNiro – don’t ask. We share our writing from time to time and writing a blog together would be ideal.

Her topic of choice for this moment in time was going to be volunteering. I’d made a lot of notes about that topic already because a lot of my friends volunteer, and the sheer number of things people do as volunteers simply amazed me. I’d planned to one day compile their stories in a collection about local volunteers, what they do, and how they got into volunteer work. I admire and respect others who volunteer their time, but Laura actually wanted me to do some volunteer work so we could write about our experiences from mother/daughter perspectives. I didn’t have time for that kind of consistent commitment.

Nope. Didn’t want to do that. It bothered me to reject this offer but, no, I couldn’t make that kind of commitment right now.

I could hear the disappointment in her voice. I suggested a different topic but she was committed to this one. The whole thing made me so uncomfortable, I didn’t even want to talk about it – and I couldn’t figure out why.

I’d been a ‘formal’ volunteer long ago, working “for free” as a Nursing Home Ombudsman. My grandmother had recently died and I missed her. Being around other grandmothers, well, it seemed like something I needed. My commitment was for a year – and by the time that year had ended, so had my outlook on many things.

I discovered this is not something I can do on a regular basis. I can do this sporadically, but I can not do this kind of really personal thing on a regular basis because I can’t handle it. Laura can’t watch commercials for the Humane Society or the ASPCA. I can’t watch the elderly die by degrees. Can’t watch them waste away as their friends leave them. Can’t bare to see the mirrored rejection of their relatives in their pleading eyes. My grandmother was never in this position, and it hadn’t occurred to me that this could be the end result of life once engaged in the business of living.

I wasn’t prepared for elderly residents who were needier than I could have ever imagined. Mostly in wheelchairs, they sat randomly in the hallways and around the nurses’ stations. They looked as if they’d been abandoned in the middle of getting from one place to another while some nurse or aide rushed off to attend to someone else. Some were tied to their chairs, their fragile wrists bound with various materials. Their heads so often bent toward the floor. I rarely saw visitors, though I came at varying times and on different days.

Every time I came it was the same. As I walked down the hall to see those individuals I was supposed to interview, the random army of squatters would reach for my hand, begging for attention. A word or two. An exchange maybe, no matter how brief, that might constitute conversation. I couldn’t say no – to any of them. Each time I stooped down to make eye contact and converse, however briefly, I’d be beckoned by someone else. As I went from one to the next, I not only took part of each person with me but also left some of myself behind.

There were more of them and less of me with every visit I made that year.

A depression slowly made its way through my limbs. It went home with me and took up a place at my table. It slept next to me in bed, and accompanied me to the university and sat at the desk next to mine. It worked alongside me at my regular job. It stayed with me day and night until there was almost no happy space left for my children.

When I started the program, I’d planned on doing it for a long time. I left after one year – when my initial commitment was over.

Laura’s suggestion that I become a volunteer made me hesitate, then made me question my hesitation.

Laura remembers feeling guilty because she was healthy and others in the hospital were not. Like her, I feel guilt, too, but mine stems from not doing more, not doing what others do.

But what’s the best way to do good? We each have gifts to offer and they’re not all the same. That’s the beauty of our individuality. Everyone’s good at something; we just have to find out what that something is.

My husband tells me I give too much of myself to every cause I become involved in, even peripherally. But I don’t feel like I’m giving anything at all; I don’t feel like I’m doing anything at all. And that, I think, is where the guilt comes in. He says I give too much of myself to the people I meet, but I just can’t seem to separate myself from people in general. I wish I could separate sympathy from empathy. It’s the empathy that takes a toll on me. I can feel what others feel, almost put myself right into their shoes (tennis shoes, hiking boots, standard heels, whatever). At the same time, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Feeling is better than not feeling.

But like Laura said, it takes a toll that extracts a heavy personal cost.

Maybe it’s because when I was growing up, I felt so isolated and alone most of the time, and no one seemed to care. No one asked. No one listened. If someone had, it would have made a huge difference in my life. It’s the difference I want to make in others’ lives.

I do care. Deeply. I ask because I care. I listen so others know I’ve heard them. And sometimes that’s what people need most: to be validated; to feel less alone. I do what I can whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself.

My grandmother was lonely too, and that’s something I only realized after the fact. She had all of us, but she was still growing older, alone in many ways. I hadn’t really understood that before all this.

Guilt? Yes. That’s what it was I’d been feeling all along. Guilt for not volunteering as Laura suggested I do. Guilt for not doing something. Not doing what other people do.

I just can’t do what other people can. But I do what I can.

Life as a CASA – #1

Years ago I heard about a program in which volunteers called “CASAs” work with abused and neglected kids.  I don’t remember how I first heard about it, but my knowledge of what the volunteers actually do was limited until a couple years ago, when an article about it refreshed my memory and led me to the National CASA Association’s website.  I was interested immediately and wanted to get involved, but at the time was in my second year in Antioch’s MFA program, and didn’t want other obligations distracting me from my writing.  So I put the article in a stack of newspaper clippings and pages torn from a variety of sources, where it spent the next year with the infinite other ideas that sprout in my mind like weeds, randomly popping up then being set aside or eventually forgotten.

If only time were as abundant as those good intentions seem to be.  Still, that article planted a seed that grew in my mind as the months passed, and I planned on learning more after finishing my degree.

Many people see “CASA” and assume the program has something to do with houses, maybe a building project or something.  That’s what I thought too, when I saw the acronym.  Later, during my interview, the volunteer coordinator told me that more often than not, this is the case.  In fact, even when people know it has nothing to do with houses, the program itself, and the role of the volunteers, is somewhat misunderstood.   One of my intentions with this blog is to introduce the program and give a clear picture of what being a CASA entails.

Another motive here is to discover why I chose this opportunity.  What drew me to CASA, as opposed to, say, a fundraising project for a community playground?  What particular aspect of CASA’s mission became a rumble of isolated thunder in the distance, and drew me toward the storm, toward cases of abuse and neglect, rather than making me turn away or take shelter?  For the past several weeks I’ve been attending training sessions for this role, and on Tuesday I will be one in a group of seventeen men and women who will be sworn in by a judge and officially become Court Appointed Special Advocates.   In the coming weeks, I will continue to write about Life as a CASA, using the beginning of our training as a jumping off point, and then continuing on with the actual work we do to delve into deeper questions and, hopefully, along the way increase awareness of, and interest in, the role of the CASA, and the young lives that benefit from this program.

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 HospitalWork – 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?

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