I’m trying to come up with a witty Tennessee reference

15 12 2011

Look it up.

Plenty of people don’t opt to work in the helping professions. Personally, I don’t get it, as we know that I think social work is the most fun. (No, really.) But people are called to all different careers. There are many jobs to be done. My stocks aren’t going to trade themselves.

Stop laughing. I could have stocks.

Many people who aren’t in the business of helping others still like to make time for it. Giving money is great, and Flying Spaghetti Monster knows we need it. But there is nothing like actually seeing what you’re supporting, and interacting with the people.

Volunteers (there’s the Tennessee connection) are great. They’re necessary. They help us to get things done that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

Of course, there are those times when they’re…not the best.

You never want to let that out there. We always appreciate people that want to help. Sometimes it just seems like they don’t know the best way to go about it.

In my days at Anonymous Youth Center, we had a few Saturdays per year when we would have to come in, to do projects with corporate or college volunteers.

If there’s one thing someone working fifty hours per week for $21,000 a year wants to do, it’s work on Saturdays.

Honestly, I didn’t mind. Much. We needed to get things done. But it’s remarkable how getting things done can create more work for us.

There were meetings, of course.

“Well, we need to clear out the garage.”
“No, we can’t ask them to do that. There are spiders in the garage. You guys will have to do that another day.”
“Awesome.”

We found other projects. Painting rooms, clearing tree branches from the playground–the things that always need to be done, but you never have time for when there are seventy kids climbing on everything and you’re primarily trying to keep them from setting one another on fire.

Of course, the volunteers there on the weekend were a little disappointed to not interact with the kids. In this case, that meant that they took it upon themselves to invite some neighborhood kids over for pizza.

This is my one day to not interact with children. Especially those children. You know the ones. The neighborhood kids who never seem to be in their houses, who don’t come to program but are always hanging out outside, trying to start fights with the kids who are enrolled.

And they’re getting my free pizza. But I can’t say anything, because–volunteers.

Sometimes the volunteers show up when the kids, or other participants, are there. Which is also great. We had some at Anonymous Youth Center. Some were great. Some clearly thought that because our children lives in a poor neighborhood, and had difficult home lives, they should be indulged. I’m not 100% against this, but you can’t bring your favorite kid ice cream and leave the other forty out. Unless you’re an asshole. You also can’t cover for a child who I put on time out for breaking the rules, saying it was actually your fault. 1. The kids don’t need to be protected from discipline. 2. I don’t want to, but I will yell at you in front of the children.

For the past couple of years, we had some corporate group (is it racist to say they all seem the same to me?) provide our teens with an evening of ice skating. Yay! I love ice skating! And somehow it’s never as fun as it is when you have three usually tough, cool, put-together adolescents, clinging to you and shrieking that they’re going to fall. (Then they fall.)

But they have their standards, this group. They want a list of who is coming a month in advance. At least fifteen kids. And they want us to the skating rink, an hour away, by 3:30 pm. Did I mention that we had one day to get this done?

A lot of my clients don’t have working phones. This means running around the Bronx, like more of a maniac than usual, in order to find out who will commit to allowing their children to go ice skating. Ice skating isn’t something a lot of our kids do regularly. Their parents are reluctant to say yes. Especially when I pull out those forms that absolve us of legal responsibility if their kids die. Rudimentary reading skills, language barriers, and parental protectiveness often combine to make parents see those as, “If your child is bleeding to death, we’re just going to ignore her.”

It’s also not easy to get to this place at the time they’re asking. Most of our kids don’t have school days that end at three pm. My readers will be shocked to hear that Anonymous Agency is not located in the shadow of Central Park. As I’ve mentioned, clients, particularly the teens, are not noted for their punctuality. I can promise to have some kids there at 3:30, or a lot of kids there by five, but I can’t promise everything.

I want to appease the people offering this trip. It’s a great opportunity, and a really nice thing for the kids. But isn’t the most important thing that I the children get to enjoy this trip?

Similar issues come up with donors. A few times now, we’re gotten some really nice clothing donations from stores. It’s a great thing for them to do, and it’s a lot of fun to go through bags of new, legitimately fashionable (I hear) stuff with participants.

But of  course, we need to keep the donors happy. Which, apparently, involves drilling into the recipients’ heads that they were to wear these clothes, not sell them. If the stores find out that these items are being resold, they will cut a bitch terminate our relationship. I was told that I should be suspicious if someone took something that was clearly the wrong size for them.

Sure. “Hey, fatty! Are you kidding yourself with that size two? Get outta here.”

I was also forbidden from throwing out a NordicTrack that was donated to us by a longtime financial supporter, back at the youth center. I realize that some of our kids need exercise (five year olds shouldn’t be circular, right?) but have you ever tried a NordicTrack? It’s impossible. Stationary cross country skiing is just not the best for children ages five to thirteen. Neither was that Thigh Master that we weren’t allowed to get rid of. And it was creepy.

So often, we’re torn. We want people to care, but we don’t want their desire to help to put us out. Sometimes I feel like we put volunteers and donors in a damned-if-you-do type situation. “Ugh, people don’t care enough to get involved! Oh, you’re going to come play with the kids one day, well what we need is money! You’re writing a check? Well anyone with enough cash can do that!”

You have to make the volunteers feel good. Like I said, we need them. We need their money, their time, their support.  And it is a good thing to be doing, no question. This is what we want from people, right? We want them to care, and to try to understand the people we’re working with and the very real needs that they have. So we need to be understanding when it comes to accommodating volunteers. Understanding their schedules and restrictions, and acknowledging that their intentions are good, even when they don’t entirely understand what they’re getting into.

And they need to understand us. Yes, it’s more fun to volunteer by holding babies, or reading aloud to well-behaved children, but that might not be where the need is. Sometimes we need people to go through the garage and clear out the spiders, or help supervise the ill-behaved teen boys basketball team.

Ultimately, all of us (on both sides) need to remember that it’s about the participants, and what they need, rather than us. As simple as it is, that one thought has kept me from tearing my hair out on countless Saturdays and late night ice skating trips.

But if we could get some volunteers in to address the office mouse situation, that would be great.

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9 responses

15 12 2011
SocialWrkGirl (@SocialWrkGirl)

OMG SJ, I swear with the week I’ve been having between having my regular volunteers ream me out at a volunteer meeting (apparently, it was appropriate for them to side with 14 year olds that i’m “snappy” with the kids and not nice because I don’t let them hit and curse) to yesterday’s FAILED ice skating trip which landed me a night in the ER… I’m now officially scared you followed me with a notebook to write this so I will take a deep breath and let go of this bad week… DAMN IT. I wanted to be a “snappy” some more…

22 12 2011
socialjerk

I think volunteers often don’t consider that we need to be with these kids all the time–we can’t let them to whatever they want, or look the other way when they do things wrong. Unlike a volunteer, we’re not only with them for an afternoon, and we can’t set that kind of precedent.

I hope you’re having a better week! Happy Hanukkah? 🙂

15 12 2011
emaufmuth

Oof…I hear you. The road to hell being paved with the best intentions of kind volunteers and all.

When I worked at homeless support programs and child care centers we’d get huge, huge garbage bags full of “donations”. By “donations” I mean stained, stretched out sweatshirts, broken toys, parts of toys, and whole toys that were dirty. Because my bosses didn’t believe in throwing anything (though we never got a ThighMaster) we had to learn how to get gunk out of plastic toys, try to repair toys, and/or secretly throw stuff out when no one was looking. And did I mention that these “donations” often came from fancy folks who were merely bequeathing us their spring cleaning problems?

How we did all that without getting bedbugs/lice/cooties, I’ll never know. I guess miracles do exist after all!

22 12 2011
socialjerk

Oh, I can imagine. I don’t think people realize how insulting it is to give someone clothes or toys that they wouldn’t even touch, thinking they’ll be thrilled to have anything. The bedbug epidemic is almost a blessing in disguise–when people want to donate those gross items, I can usually use that as an excuse for why we can’t accept them!

16 12 2011
TokenBoySWKStudent

This could not have come at a more opportune time; my agency is currently completely buried in our holiday basket project. Which means that we’re dealing with a whole horde of well-intentioned people. And I have to admit that sometimes, I’d prefer working with even my crankiest and craziest clients to managing overeager volunteers.

But then we get seniors who help out around our office. They help with the dishes, they answer the phone, they help fill orders, they copy and fold assessment forms. They do all the grunt work that would otherwise prohibit our small staff from serving the large number of clients we serve. And there is absolutely no way that an office of eight people (yes, eight) could compile and deliver 200 holiday baskets. Especially not on the heels of Medicare season. And let’s not forget about the donations; watching dozens of people giving what they can to help other people in need is a pretty powerful experience. And I will never be able to afford to feed 200 seniors, some of whom are raising grandchildren, unless I marry rich or win the lotto.

So thanks for the reminder. I really do value my volunteers; hopefully I won’t forget that over the next couple of days.

22 12 2011
socialjerk

The youth center I worked at was the same way. While many of our volunteers weren’t perfect, we couldn’t have taken trips or run activities for so many kids if we didn’t have those extra adults. It’s very easy (and fine, I think!) to get frustrated with them, but it would certainly be even worse if they weren’t there.

Good luck with your holiday program! (And with the lotto/marrying rich.)

22 12 2011
Nectarine

Ditto to emaufmuth on the garbage (bag) “donations”.

In my province they made a rule a few years ago that high school students must complete 40 hours of community service to graduate. When I worked at the good ol’ SA shelter, we would routinely get calls from panicked grade 12 students who needed to get all 40 hours in the next week! I’m sure you can just imagine how “helpful” they were.
On the other hand, some students would be great, and would end up returning beyond their 40-hours and really become great contributors to the organization. You win some, you lose some!

22 12 2011
socialjerk

I love that kids have to do that, but it would be great if it were more often an opportunity to form a relationship with an organization and find something you really care about. That’s great that some kids take advantage of it like that, but I guess there will always be the slackers.

We were once given a used bedspread that smelled so strongly of cigarette smoke we couldn’t even keep it in the office. This was part of you Christmas program, in which people were supposed to donate new items. I can’t imagine what they thought a family would do with that!

30 05 2012
Should I smile? Am I on Candid Camera? « process, recorded.

[…] at first. I have a soft spot for dads, and given the many tough parts of working with volunteers (SocialJerk has some good thoughts on this), I appreciated his supportive nature. That is until he started mixing in some good ol’ […]

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