catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 20 :: 2009.10.16 — 2009.10.29


Paid in hope and heartbreak

Each year, when attendance starts lagging among the group of sophomore college students my husband Rob and I work with, we end up giving them “the talk.”  It goes something like this: we know you’re volunteering for this position.  Even though the work we do together has the academic rigor of a class and the responsibilities of a job, you aren’t getting credit and you’re not getting paid.  Therefore, when the inevitable college stress triage occurs, your commitment to our group tends to be the first to go.  But think about this: most of life after you graduate is going to be on a volunteer basis.  No one is going to pay you to show up or give you a bad grade when you don’t.  You just have to do things because you said you would, and because you’re responsible to a community, whether that community is your church, your neighborhood, your family or otherwise.  You have to understand how to deepen your joy beyond immediate gratification, while also not letting rote obligations overwhelm you.

When we give this talk, Rob and I speak from quite a bit of experience.  While I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being lazy, I’ve never held a standard forty-hours-per-week job except at the local parks and recreation department, sandwiched into the summers between college years.  Otherwise, it’s been the vocational road-less-traveled for me: starting non-profit organizations, freelancing and contracting occasionally, church office management and now a shared position with Rob so we both have time to do the other work we’re both committed to.  I would estimate that well over half of the 50-60 hours per week I work (sometimes many more) is comprised of volunteer responsibilities.  I can’t say I really planned things this way — it just sort of…happened.  For me and Rob, our life together has been a process of doing what we think is important and then figuring out how to fund it without selling our souls. 

We started *culture is not optional in 2002 — a project we hope can afford to pay us some day — and then in 2003, we helped open a non-profit fair trade store.  In my role with both organizations, I not only volunteer my time, but manage other volunteers as well. Recruiting, scheduling, training, communicating — somehow, even in my volunteer positions, I usually end up taking on some sort of leadership role.  Maybe it’s just the innate tendency of a bossy older sister who learned early on how to organize turns in the shower.  Or maybe I’m just fascinated by the aspects of economy that don’t solely depend on numeric exchanges between bank accounts.  Probably, it’s some combination of both.

On most days, I don’t think I’d trade this way of life for one that clocks and compensates me more.  The really good days happen when I hear comments like this one from our volunteers: “I really do enjoy volunteering at the store, the ‘ah-hah!’ moments I get from customers when I tell them what the store is about is the best, and it keeps getting better. I’m really happy to be sharing the concept of fair trade to people that want to help but didn’t know how to.”  This kind of affirmation helps me and the others in leadership realize that by the time and vision we give, we are opening people up to imaginative possibilities for love and service that they didn’t know existed before.

Some days, however, this path is more difficult.  I remember not long after we started the store discovering that twenty-some dollars was missing from the cash drawer.  We did not have the support of a board of directors at the time and Rob and I agonized over how to deal with the situation.  We confronted both of our volunteers from that day and no one confessed, but one checked out for good.  And now we find ourselves in another theft situation at the store, only this time it involves a greater sum of cash than $20 and thousands of dollars of personal possessions.  Thankfully, this time we do have the support of an amazing board of directors to help us navigate the sense of violation with wisdom, compassion and hope, even as we all recognize the damage the perpetrator — whoever he or she may be — has done to all of us emotionally and to the spirit of the space.  Even with such a powerful community surrounding us, these are the times that truly test my commitment to a harder way.

With paid work, there’s a contract and clear expectations.  There are boundaries and set means of exchange.  With volunteer work, there is only the tender space of the human heart, broken for one of the world’s many needs and trying to heal its own wounds and the wounds of others with the intangible gift of time.  There are no predictable equations here; pouring more of ourselves into something we care about simply because we care doesn’t mean that no one will fail us or take advantage of us.  Good intentions are not always rewarded with success, whatever “success” might look like in a given situation.

And yet, there is something so hopeful about people standing together by their own choosing — not a family, bound to one another by blood, or a business whose employees are dependant on a paycheck, but an association of friends coming together to serve a common mission.  Families and businesses have their own unique purposes and benefits, to be sure, but volunteer organizations fill in the cracks between.  At their best, they provide fertile soil for creative solutions to grow and flourish, emerging from both joy and heartbreak to provide beauty beyond what anyone doing his or her small part could ever have imagined.

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