As manager of the volunteers at my museum, I have come to learn and appreciate the deep, deep, DEEP value of volunteerism.
I have volunteered on and off throughout my young adult and adult life: candy striper at the hospital in high school (although I refused to wear the stupid smock); cage cleaner at various animal shelters; animal keeper assistant at the Oakland Zoo; on and on and on… but I never really understood the importance of my volunteer work until I became a volunteer manager.
I did understand the importance of volunteer work. I knew that organizations relied on volunteer help to keep them going. I just didn’t understand the importance of my volunteer work. I always assumed the organizations where I volunteered had enough help. They didn’t really need me. And I used that to justify what essentially was horrifying flakiness. I would sign up for a “volunteer shift” somewhere, and then on the day of, I wouldn’t feel like going, so I wouldn’t show up. And I would justify it by saying that Organization X didn’t really need my help anyway.
But now I manage volunteers, and even though I have a healthy roster of them, I need each and every person who commits to the museum. If one of them doesn’t show up, it can sink an entire program. Or at least make it capsize … (sorry for all the ship puns. They will come up here and there, unfortunately). On the flip side, I am able to do as much as I can in my job because I have my volunteers. None of our programs – vital resources to our local community – would exist without my volunteers. And none of the crazy new initiatives I try to implement from time to time would make it past a crazy idea in my head without my volunteers. I can’t live without them. I simply cannot.
I have also watched so many of my volunteers blossom in their time with the museum. They came in timid and unsure, wanting to help in some way but not sure how, and they have become part of a family. They have made new friends – I love it when I hear about the volunteers hanging out with each other socially – and they have developed new skills. Some of my volunteers had never interacted with a person under the age of 30 since they themselves were 30. Now, they are working with elementary school kids, middle school kids, high school… monsters… and they are loving it! Doing a great job!
It has been my experience as a volunteer manager then that has made me want to get back into the world of volunteering myself. But this time I wanted to do it right. I didn’t want to flake. I didn’t want to sail out full steam ahead, but then start losing that steam (sigh – another ship pun) halfway through the journey. I wanted to be the kind of volunteer I work with.
So I started by thinking long and hard about what I wanted to do. While on my cruise around Cape Horn in March, I gave it a lot of thought, and I knew that I wanted to have more experience working with kids (believe it or not, I spend a lot of time in my job working on program development, and not as much time as I’d like working directly with kids) and I wanted to work with animals.
Next – the Almighty Google. Where a search of “non-profit education volunteer” introduced me to one of the most incredible organizations I have ever encountered: 826LA. This awe-inspiring non-profit works with primary school students (K-12) on their writing skills. Kids can get signed up for any number of programs including after-school tutoring, writing workshops, and in-school assistance, where among other activities like writing their own creative stories, they get homework help and support with developing their reading skills and habits. I felt it in my gut when I came across this place – I had to volunteer here.
And I have been with 826LA since mid-April. I signed up to be a Centaur Club volunteer, which means I work at least once a week. And thus I spent the remainder of this school year in after-school tutoring, working once a week, and when I could swing it, twice a week! Now, school is out, but I am looking forward to mid-summer, when I get to work with the kids again in the organization’s summer writing camp.
I haven’t flaked. And I never intend to. This place is amazing. The kids are amazing. And there really is no better feeling then seeing a child smile when you have done something to help them.
Next up is the animals. I am signed up to attend a volunteer orientation for NKLA – a consortia of animal shelters and animal safety organizations that is determined to stop the euthanization of shelter animals here in Los Angeles. I can’t express how excited I am to get involved with them …
Especially since this past Monday, when I spent some time with another organization I love. This small non-profit is a connection I made through my job, and I don’t think I have met someone I admire more than Debbie Rocha, the executive director of this organization. I aspire to be this woman in so many ways.
Her organization started after her teenaged daughter committed suicide in 2011. The daughter, Samantha, was a social outcast who struggled with acceptance amongst her peers. The family tried to make things better for Samantha by moving to a new and smaller town so she could have that second chance, but to no avail. Troubles continued, and the only escapes Samantha had in her life were her music and her horses. After Samantha’s death, Debbie, started SRD Straightening Reins to bring animal therapy to other teenagers that struggle with social issues. The kids at Straightening Reins help take care of the organization’s ranch of animals, which includes horses, goats, miniature horses, and miniature donkeys, and they sign up for classes and workshops as well. Many of the classes are geared towards horse care, so riding lessons and the like, but Straightening Reins also offers therapy workshops that use art, music, and animal care to bring peace to troubled souls.
And ever since I met Debbie, I have headed out to the Straightening Reins ranch to help her from time to time with miscellaneous programs and projects. I love it so much, and wish I could do it more frequently, but … well, no need for excuses here. Suffice it to say that transportation is an issue. As much as I love Artemis, I cannot bike to the Straightening Reins ranch.
Anyway, this past Monday, I managed to secure solid transportation, and I headed out to the ranch to help Debbie with a fundraiser coming up this weekend. I actually spent my time there helping take care of the horses. I helped exercise them (and helped is a term I use loosely – I couldn’t get the persnickety guy to move so I needed to call in one of Debbie’s students for help) and I did wash and groom them.
I came home on Monday night and J said I had a glow about me. I was glowing. I was all alight because I had spent real time with horses! The persnickety guy who wouldn’t exercise was a great snuggler! He gave me lots of horse hugs, which actually entail pressing their muzzle up against your shoulder J And I can’t express how fulfilling it is to wash and groom a horse. Even scraping the s—t off the horseshoes is a thrill.
My experience this past Monday has only reiterated my desire to volunteer with animals. I am even more excited now for the NKLA orientation, and can’t wait to get back to cleaning up s—t.