The email that arrived at 3:30 p.m. took my breath away. It caused a crushing sensation in my gut. Don’t show up to volunteer for the Democratic National Committee tomorrow, it said. It’s too hot out.
Forget that you’ve been planning to volunteer since earmuff weather, that you scheduled a vacation around this four-day period, that you told everyone you knew that you were going to volunteer.
Forget that you endured a sluggish website to enroll, that you watched a dull webinar and a worthless hour-long “leader training,” that you returned to the website following every frustrating re-assigned assignment.
Forget that you picked up your royal-blue DNC “Ask me” t-shirt, that you spent the weekend with your granddaughter visiting five out of seven sites of Political Fest, that your life always entails asking people with maps what help they need.
It’s hot out, so stay home, the message said. In February 2015, when the Democrats chose Philadelphia for their national 2016 convention, didn’t they know that, while it’s often sunny in Philadelphia, it’s always hot in July?
Regardless, I will go the Reading Terminal Market at lunchtime, wearing my volunteer t-shirt and badge, and offer help to visitors. I signed up because I love and support my lifelong home, because I know the city well, and because I can. I’m crushed, but I’ll make lemonade.
Not an easy match
Volunteering with established organizations is a wonderful way to spend one’s time, but in the last few years, I haven’t found the perfect match.
Last fall I applied to volunteer at two nearby hospitals. One never responded, but the other called me in for an interview. I passed. I had to submit to a state-mandated security screening and undergo a series of laboratory tests to make sure I wasn’t spreading typhus or malaria. The tests would cost me $2,500. I had hoped to donate time, not money. Scratch that volunteer opportunity.
A library assigned me to teach seniors to use computers, but on my first scheduled Tuesday, the librarian forgot, and then the computers were down. Scratch one more.
At a noted downtown landmark, I signed up to help tourists. For months, so few people showed up that I spent my shifts burning through my smart phone’s data plan. Scratch.
It’s not just me. A social-worker-friend has quit volunteer positions, including a nonprofit store that assigned her to unpacking cartons instead of greeting shoppers, and a help-women-prepare-for-the-workplace agency that had her telling women how to dress appropriately.
Can’t stop me now
I have volunteered since age 16, when my father signed me up to read to a blind man in a retirement home one afternoon a week. For a few years I volunteered in the intensive-care unit of a university hospital, answering call bells when the rest of the staff were tending to the sickest patients. That couldn’t happen today, but wow, that was important, useful and memorable. When my kids were young, we went to the Overbrook School for the Blind and volunteered as a team. That was brilliant.
A normal person would just go to the local branch of a national charity and plug into whatever slots a faraway officer deemed important. I must not be normal, because I want to include my brain in my volunteer work, brandishing whatever skills I have.
My friend David Brown is a public relations expert, a serial entrepreneur and business owner, and an ordained reverend in the United Methodist Church in Philadelphia. He has made an enormous impact through mission-focused work, leading nonprofit organizations, and creating volunteer opportunities. He says nonprofits need people like me, even if they don’t know how to manage them. Us.
So I continue volunteering on my own. You can’t write “helps blind people across the street even if she’s running late” on your resume, but you can still do it. You can’t brag about helping laid-off carpenters revise resumes, but you can still do it. I want to volunteer, dammit.
Maybe I can’t volunteer with the blessing of the DNC because the temperature is high. But I can still go to the Reading Terminal — or stand on a shady corner in Center City — and help visitors to Philadelphia. Gotta go volunteer.