January 17, 2009

Will work for nothing

I used to volunteer. As a kid I would occasionally sort non-perishables with my parents for the local food bank. When I was an adolescent my dad and I delivered hot lunches for Meals On Wheels. I spent a couple of years working with a theatre group on a dramatic production introducing our school board's new multicultural policy to staff and students. For a few months after high school I took care of routine correspondence for Greenpeace. During university I volunteered for an organization that sent students to visit so-called "shut-ins." Shortly after graduating I was fortunate enough to land an advanced-level volunteer position with a large social service agency. The work involved researching, writing, and presenting difficult material in a sensitive manner. I loved that volunteer position so much that I held on to it with all my might for a decade.

To my tremendous delight, a paid position became available at the agency and I was eventually hired to do exactly what I had been doing as a volunteer. I had to take a pay cut and a huge leap of faith, leaving behind a cushy and secure job with many perks for a one-year contract. Lo and behold, after the contract ended my position became permanent. (Permanent, in a field like mine, is a relative term; recent legislative changes are significantly affecting my job, but I'm hoping to ride out the storm.) I don't think very many people are lucky enough to have their passions become their careers. I am truly very thankful. I am also missing volunteering. Doing a heck of a lot of work for pay is not as fulfilling as doing a heck of a lot of work for nothing more than the reward of knowing that you are doing it out of the goodness of your heart. Not that I'm about to give up my paycheque.

When I started volunteering for the agency I was one of about a dozen volunteers in my department. Ten years later I was the only volunteer left. That meant that, after I was hired, we had no volunteers. With a lengthy waiting list for our services it was decided that we required additional help. We met with our branch's volunteer recruiter and explained our needs. We required someone who was a quick study, who had excellent written communication skills and who was proficient in word processing. Also, because of the lengthy training period, we needed someone who could promise us at least one year of service. From time to time our volunteer recruiter would appear in our office with someone new and eager to help out. Every time, my co-workers would turn their chairs, greet the new volunteer enthusiastically and then swivel back to their computers. Perhaps because I am the person with the most recent volunteer experience, or because I am the only one in my position who is in the office five days a week, or because I swivel the slowest, the responsibility for the volunteers fell to me. I was left to describe the position, provide the training and review their work.

Volunteer Number One had a social work degree. Score! She was only volunteering because she didn't have enough Canadian experience to land a job in her field. Let-down! While she was fairly well spoken, her written English was so weak that she didn't know "him" from "her" or "he" from "she," and she couldn't keep her tenses straight. Editing her writing took me so long that I may as well have done the work myself. She was a nice lady, but her writing was so excruciating to deal with that I was praying for someone, anyone to hire her. My prayers were answered -- sort of. She got a job. Unfortunately, she felt so indebted to us that she kept showing up at our office whenever she had a day off. I had neither the heart nor the authority to fire a volunteer, but oh how I wanted to! Eventually the volunteer recruiter, sheepish over her lousy job of screening, reassigned Volunteer Number One to a more appropriate area of the agency.

Anxious to redeem herself, our volunteer recruiter brought us Volunteer Number Two. This young woman had just finished her studies in a field completely unrelated to our agency's work. Whenever she came in I had the distinct impression that she wasn't sure how she had ended up with us. That's certainly how I felt. Her writing skills made Volunteer Number One seem like a prizewinning journalist. One day she reported that she had to leave the country to go see a sick relative. It was several months before she reappeared. She told us that she had contracted malaria, necessitating a longer absence than she had anticipated. We soon realized that malaria wasn't the only thing she had picked up while she was away. She was quite obviously pregnant and, as such, she was unable to commit herself to a full year of volunteering. Our joy was genuine when we wished her farewell.

With two spectacular strikes, our volunteer recruiter became difficult to reach. One day, however, she came to announce that she had a fabulous candidate for us: a retired social worker with extensive experience in the social services. This woman's work history made the rest of us seem unqualified by comparison. We waited eagerly to meet Volunteer Number Three. When she arrived, we found her to be as knowledgeable and experienced as promised. She was so engaging and intelligent that my co-workers and I talked to her for over an hour, awed by her credentials. Finally I described the position to her in detail. She admitted that computer work wasn't her forte. She held up her hands, revealing a less-than-full complement of fingers. An accident had long ago robbed her of several digits, and she wasn't really interested in a desk job anyway. Wave good-bye, Volunteer Number Three.

After a long period of silence, our volunteer recruiter showed up unexpectedly with a twenty-something university grad who was bright and pleasant and articulate and intuitive. This young woman was in the middle of obtaining a second degree and she wanted to add to her volunteer experience. She quickly grasped the purpose of our work. I gave her some samples to read, one of which brought her to tears. She obviously had both the smarts and the sensitivity required for the position. She expressed her interest in the work and we arranged a date for her to start.

When it was time for Volunteer Number Four to leave I walked her to the elevators. As the doors slid open she stepped toward me. Perhaps because she had been emotional earlier my first thought was, "Aw, she needs a hug." I threw my arms around her and immediately thought, "Oh shit. She was just trying to shake my hand. She's the first qualified candidate we've seen and I'm about to scare her away. Crap crap crappy crap." In a lame attempt to cover up my mistake, I exclaimed, "I LOVE volunteers!" before releasing her. If only I could describe the expression on her face as I smiled and ushered her to the waiting elevator, acting as if my behaviour was perfectly ordinary. The elevator doors closed and I covered my face with my hands.

I returned to my desk and turned myself in, much to my co-workers' amusement. To everyone's great surprise Volunteer Number Four actually came back. She has been with us for several months now. While no one ever mentions my earlier faux-pas in front of her, my co-workers still delight in saying, "We LOVE volunteers" while smirking at me.

Much to our chagrin, Volunteer Number Four is so swamped with her studies that she has decided to stop volunteering until the spring. On her last day I had to leave early. I purposely bid her a very casual good-bye, saying, "See you in a few months." As I was walking away a co-worker stopped me and asked, "Jenni, aren't you forgetting something?" and mimed a great big hug.

I promise I'll give Volunteer Number Four a great big hug when she returns in the spring. For now, let her remember volunteering as a heck of a lot of work with no tangible rewards or recognition. If she's anything like me, that will make it seem all the more worthwhile.


Rob K said...

Now, who in his right mind would not want a hug from you?!?

Calamity's dad said...

Nothing wrong with a hug. Hell, guys on a football field even slap each other on the ass. "Not that there's anything wrong with that" either.

Anonymous said...

jenni gives good hugs. =)

amelia said...

Nothing wrong with hugs at all!!

I really enjoyed reading this post!

Heather said...

LOL Your ability to write in the manner you do is such a pleasure to read. You could put together a bunch of humour essays and I think any publisher would be crazy not to want them! I'm really serious. Now, can I have a hug? hehe

ryssee said...

I for one am very awkward about hugging in the workplace. Sometimes you just know it's ok. Other times, huggers are hugging people I wouldn't want to hug and then I get caught in the situation and I act all messed up and awkward.
I really liked your post because those of us that don't know you in your real life got to know more about you and your work! Getting paid to do what you found out you love must be really cool.

alan said...

I wasn't raised on hugs and always found them awkward except for a very very few coworkers through the years...

Somehow I think you'd be one of them!

Thank you for your kind words when you stopped by last time, I am grateful for them!


ryssee said...

Thanks for your comments on my recent excitement!