I hadn’t even heard of “Giving Tuesday” last week when I decided it was time to find a new volunteering opportunity. (Giving Tuesday is today, FYI). For me, it just felt like time – I’ve volunteered my time on and off since my twenties. But the fact that there is now a day in which “giving” is celebrated, and that my latest urge to volunteer dovetailed so nicely with it, means today I get to write a post about the wonders of giving. Giving money is great, and I encourage you to do it, but if you can, what you really should give is time.
My first experience with volunteering was going to a soup kitchen in the South Bronx with a group from my Catholic high school. I don’t remember why I signed up. I’d like to think it was completely altruistic, although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. I remember feeling a hunger (not the food kind, the other kind), and thinking that maybe helping out at the soup kitchen might satiate it.
I could not have guessed just how right I was.
The soup kitchen catered to homeless people, the type of person I would most likely walk right past on the dangerous New York City streets of the 1980s. The workers in the kitchen seemed hard, no doubt annoyed at having wide-eyed high school kids show up once and then never come again, as they waded through the oceans of poverty and lack that knocked at their door week after week. “Don’t give them seconds, no matter how much they ask,” said one stone-faced woman who prepped us in the kitchen. “They’ll try to get their kids to ask. Don’t fall for it. We have to make this food be enough for everyone. And don’t let them rope you into a conversation.”
I went out to serve with a big vat of something liquid – stew, I guess, or maybe some kind of soup – and a ladle. I was nervous, and I told myself it was because I wasn’t an experienced server. But if I’d been honest with myself it was because the people I’d be serving made me jittery. I was poor, but the people being served at the soup kitchen were unlike anyone I’d ever met. My classmates and I were among the only white faces, although many of us were Latina, and I’d grown up without knowing many black people. I hadn’t seen the Paul Newman movie Fort Apache The Bronx, but I knew we were in similar territory, as the burned out buildings on the school bus ride in had reminded me. Just peeking out from behind the swinging kitchen door at the restless crowd, I felt apart from the people I’d be helping to feed.
As soon as I walked out to the dining room, though, something changed. They held bowls out with two hands, smiled kindly at me as I filled them, table by table. They thanked me warmly, like they really meant it, like I could take credit for anything but ladling out the food someone else had given and prepared.
They did ask for seconds, even as the firsts were still uneaten. They asked for extra rolls. They did send their kids to ask for more. But rather than feel hardness, I felt nothing but our shared humanity. I might have benefited from a soup kitchen more than once in my own childhood and adolescence. It was only a lack of access to information and maybe some misguided pride that had kept us from being the ones holding out the bowls on more than one occasion. It was the first time I really understood the meaning of “There but for the grace of God go I.”
I moved out of my parents’ house at eighteen and focused on my own survival. But some time in my mid-twenties, when I’d carved out a comfortable existence for myself, the memory came back to me. I looked for a soup kitchen in my area, but couldn’t find one. Instead, I found a group that suggested volunteer opportunities locally. I decided I wanted to work with children, not having any of my own yet but beginning to feel the stirrings of desire to do it. I found two places, one a battered woman’s shelter in the next town over from me where the moms came with their kids, another a group home for teenage girls with emotional issues and parents who would never take them back because the courts had terminated their parental rights. I went after work and on weekends sometimes. Again, as with the soup kitchen, I saw myself in their eyes.
I opened up a business, met my husband, had my children. Life got hectic. All my energy for giving was directed at the two small people whose very survival depended squarely on me. Never before had I faced so terrifying a prospect – two people counting on me for everything. For me, early motherhood felt like I was being swallowed up. When the overwhelm came, I closed my eyes and tried to trust and gave them more of me anyway, past where it was comfortable, past where it seemed fair, without any indication that it was working. Every night I put them to bed relatively unscathed, their sweaty hands gripping my finger and not letting me go even in sleep. That was my only sign of success for years and years.
And the magic was that my capacity to give expanded. I thought they’d drain me, but they grew me, grew me up, made me better. They taught me to be in charge. I learned to trust my instincts. The years seemed to pass interminably, then all at once. They matured into charming, good, level-headed, caring people. Just recently, someone asked me if I’d ever considered writing a parenting book, that relationships like the one I have with my kids don’t happen every day. I let myself feel the accomplishment in that. On its heels came the realization that the bulk of the heavy lifting portion of the job was over and that I once again had enough time and surplus capacity to look for ways to help in my community.
I’d volunteered for a few years when my kids were of school age, working for a local organization that helps undocumented day laborers. I listened to the workers’ stories of being denied wages after a hard day’s work and their fears of deportation, and again my story was written in their eyes.
It occurred to me then that I’m not a day laborer getting ripped off or an emotionally disturbed teen girl in the system, but what I am is human. When I saw myself in all the people I met volunteering, they were just expanding my capacity to see our basic bond.
So, last week, I went on my county’s volunteerism site. I found a few opportunities I liked: one teaching illiterate adults to read, another leading work-readiness workshops for low-income women and yet another helping lead nature walks in a small wooded area where I go to mediate a few times a week. (Finding volunteer positions is like finding a job: you never know what’s going to stick, so you have to cast your net wide). My training for the literacy program starts later this week.
Have I ever been an adult who can’t read? No. But I have been a person in need many times. We think we volunteer to give something, but really we volunteer to get something: a reminder of our blessings, a sense of being part of one family, an expanded love for our fellow humans, an understanding of our shared condition. So, today, on Giving Tuesday, if you feel called, I invite you to do the same. I can’t tell you enough how wonderful it’s been for me so many years of my life.
Here are a few places to find volunteer opportunities in your area:
VolunteerMatch.org: Click here
Idealist.org Click here
Feeling adventurous and want to volunteer further away? Here is a good article about volunteering abroad: click here.