This is a story about volunteerism. It's also a story about the power of non-monetary, or intangible rewards.
The setting is a middle school library. The event is a volunteer "thank you" breakfast.
I walk into the library and the first thing I notice is the amount of food that has been prepared for the event. It's a full breakfast, with quiche, eggs, muffins, donuts, fresh fruit, coffee, juice. Someone really put effort and thought into this event. The second thing I notice is that I'm the only guy in the group. That's not so surprising, but it does make me wonder the real reason behind the lack of male volunteers. The last thing that surprises me is that there are less than a dozen people in attendance. I expected maybe twice that many.
I've been volunteering in the middle school library every Tuesday morning at 7:00 AM. The school district has a budget shortfall and they needed help in running the library. I shelved books, monitored computer usage, helped kids find books, and generally kept order.
The breakfast this morning was the school administration's way of rewarding the volunteers for their service. After about thirty minutes of chatting, I start to get up to leave, as I had some other commitments. But immediately I sit back down as the Principal tells me that she has a few words to say. Apparently, she also has something to hand out, I see as stack of papers on the table next to her.
She looks directly at me and asks if I would introduce myself, tell the group about my daughter at the school and what I learned from volunteering this year. "Then we can all have a chance to tell the same." she concludes.
"Hi, I'm Matt Johnson...." I introduce myself, talk about my daughter, and get to the part about what I learned. My mind is racing through the year trying to come up with something witty to say. So I just start talking and hope that something intelligent comes out of my mouth.
"I learned that kids this age, middle schoolers, really do have a love of reading. I also learned that having a functioning library is important to their well-being. Many mornings I would arrive and see a group of kids waiting outside the library for me to arrive and open it up. Their faces would light up and they would smile. They wouldn't say much, but I could tell that they were glad that I was there to let them in. I had some issues with a few kids throughout the year, playing games on the computers, being too loud, eating in the library. But I also learned that they were basically good kids, they're just kids. Those same kids by the end of the year were helping me with shelving books or letting me know when someone else was playing games on the computer. So I learned that having a role model and sticking to something has a reward in the way the kids turned around and began respecting the library and the rules."
Whew, that sounded pretty good, and I realized after hearing others speak that we all learned something by volunteering. One woman learned that she could get help on projects if she gave short specific tasks to other volunteers. Whereas if she just asked for a broader general assistance she didn't get as much help. "Keep the requests specific and smaller, and you'll get a much better response." she said.
Good lesson I thought, that could apply to a whole lot of the work I do.
The conversation goes around the group and a few of the volunteers tear up when talking about their experience this year.
It's at that point that I realize that this is more than just a "thank you" breakfast. By sharing our experiences and our learnings, we are all re-enforing our commitment to volunteering. Everyone is providing positive feedback to the others. I'm feeling really great about being a part of this group at that moment.
And that's part of the reward, the intangible, non-monetary reward for the effort we've expended that year. We we'ren't paid for our time, we did it because we were passionate about affecting positive change in the school.
There's also a wonderful side benefit to volunteering. The primary benefits are more obvious: helping where help is needed, the feeling of being a part of something bigger, the sense of contribution. But there's a less obvious benefit which surfaces on a more internal level.
I volunteer at my younger kids' elementary school by participating in a group called "Dads Of Great Students" or D.O.G.S. which is organized by the National Center For Fathering
and organized locally by Geoffrey Doy
, who is also running for the school board this term.
Last month I had a chance to volunteer in the school's preschool class. This is a class with several developmentally challenged children. They are so sweet, so caring and loving little kids, but they need extra time and extra attention. We played a game where they looked at two similar objects and decided which was thick and which was thin. It was great to sit with them and watch them succeed. They smiled and I could tell they felt great when they choose the correct answers. Then we headed out to the playground and within a few minutes I had a group of them following me. I had a packet of stickers and they all wanted one. It was so fun to watch them playing on the slides and generally run and have fun. I remember one little boy in particular. He had some issues with motor control and it was difficult for him to keep up with the other kids. But he sort of hung out next to me and then unsuspectingly he reach out and put his hand in mine. It was just one of those moments. I looked down and smiled at him and he smiled back and we walked hand in hand back to his class at the sound of the bell. It was a small moment, nothing big or extravagant. But it left a lasting impression on me. He just wanted someone to hold his hand and spend some time and attention on him. That's an easy thing to do. It doesn't cost anything but the returns are great.
Even writing this I start to smile and feel really great about volunteering.
Back to the "thank you" breakfast, after we've all spoken, the Principal hands out a certificate and laughs saying "we don't have any money in the budget for anything fancy and I don't want to spend the PTSA's money, but we do want you to all know how important you are and how much we appreciate your time and effort." She also hands out a small token of appreciation. A "Ravens" carabiner, which I'm now using for my key holder.
I will volunteer again next year. I may even do a bit more next year than this year. And I would do that because I want to help, yes, but I also want to continue to reap the non-monetary, intangible benefits of being a part of something that I feel passionate about and that affects positive change in many of the kids' lives.
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