My first volunteer experience was forced upon me. OK, maybe “forced” is too strong a word, but I didn’t exactly volunteer to volunteer. I was 10 years old and my brother Jeff was 11. Our mom was a psychiatric nurse at Extendicare, an assisted living facility in southern Indiana. My brother and I were off school for President’s Day, so instead of leaving us little devils at home with idle hands, my mom “volunteered” us to help out with arts and crafts day at work.
I remember my initial discomfort when we walked into the large cafeteria-style room. I was just a child, and for the first time surrounded by adults who could not fully take care of themselves. Many were physically or mentally challenged, and I was really unsure of what to say or do in that environment. I didn’t want to upset anyone.
My mom introduced me to one of the patients named Georgie. He was in a wheelchair, with no legs below the knees. He was a big muscular guy, but had difficulty with his motor skills, even holding his head up. His eyes rolled back and forth as he looked at me.
I asked my mom, “Can he understand what I say to him?”
She encouraged, “He may not understand all your words… but he understands how it feels. Just talk to him like he was one of your friends.”
She said “Georgie, this is David. What’s your name?”
He blurted out “Georgie!” and then lit up with a big smile and a gust of laughter, as if he loved to hear the sound of his own name.
I started helping him with his art project, a decoupage, which basically involved gluing cutout pictures onto a wooden board and then brushing shellac over the top to create a shiny wall hanging. I explained to Georgie what to do but he couldn’t really hold the brush on his own. So I held it in his right hand as we brushed on the shellac together.
I sang out “back and forth, back and forth” in time with the brushing. After a couple of minutes, I looked up to see that he was smiling joyously and swaying his head back and forth like Stevie Wonder.
That’s when he did something I did not expect. He reached over with his left hand, grabbed onto my left hand and just… held onto it. (And he had a strong grip too.) In that moment, I felt like I really mattered to him. Do you ever get that feeling when you’re helping someone?
You may have worked as a volunteer at some point in your life. Maybe it’s a family tradition you are continuing. Maybe you’re earning extra credit for school or work. Maybe you just want something to help get you off the couch.
Whatever your motivation, you’re doing something very important when you put in effort to help others. Volunteer effort is often measured by counting your hours. In addition to counting hours, you can also measure moments that matter… like the one I had with Georgie. Moments that may seem insignificant to you at first, but make a big difference in someone else’s life. You may never know just how much.
If you have worked for a volunteer organization that matters to you, please tell us why and list a link in the comments below. Let’s spread the word.