Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Joy of Volunteerism

There are some people you would do almost anything for.  My lifelong friend, Blake, is one of those people.  He is a teacher at a nearby high school, and today, the school celebrated volunteerism and community service.  When Blake asked me to speak at their convocation, I was honored, but nervous about how to tell my story to high school kids in a manner that would avoid the dweebish.  Then, he told me I only had 3-5 minutes.  Then, he told me the speaker following me would be his niece.  Miss America, Katie Stam.  No pressure, Georgie.  Add to the mix that he wouldn't let me have a podium and had a nice hot spotlight in my face as I gave my presentation.  Yikes. I think he owes me a drink.  Here's what I said:

On a hot July Saturday night, when I was 8 years old, we had a terrible storm.  My dad was down in the barn milking the cows, my mom was at the stove, trying to finish supper before the electricity inevitably went out and me?  Well, I was just plain scared.  We didn’t realize that lightening had struck the tree next to our house -- it had caught on fire and the fire had spread to our roof-- until dad came running through the door, shouting for us to get out.  He called the volunteer fire department, and the volunteer fire department came and saved our home.

My dad was a farmer, but he loved politics.  He wasn’t the kind of politician who is on the ballot, however; he was a precinct committeeman, a volunteer position.  I loved to ride along with him as he went out to make sure everyone was registered to vote.  He opened the polls on Election Day and bought donuts for the poll workers, but I think his greatest joy was driving little old ladies to the polls so that they could exercise their right to vote.

My mom was a nurse, but was a stay-at- home mom while I was growing up.  Once every six weeks, she would put on her starched white uniform and her little white cap and go volunteer at the bloodmobile -- she was a Red Cross nurse.  (I wore her Red Cross pin today as a little inspiration for myself!)  She worked at shot clinics and Girls Scout camps, and in one of my favorite pictures, she is standing outside of the little white first aid building at the Jackson County Fair where she volunteered one day every summer during fair week.

I was asked to come speak to you today because I am a volunteer.  Throughout my life, I have done a lot of volunteering and community service, because growing up, I had great volunteer role models.  I work with volunteers, and have been helped by volunteers (perhaps the first time by the volunteer fire department!)     But I didn’t just want to bore you and list all the volunteer opportunities I’ve been involved with – I wanted to be able to really inspire you. 

So I did a little research. 

I asked my friends on facebook.

I got almost 40 responses to my question, “Why do you volunteer?”  (“Friend” me on FB and you can read all of them!)   My friends are very wise, and their answers  ranged from the sweet – volunteering makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside – to profound thoughts on servant  leadership, Christian duty, selflessness and responsibility.

But the same themes run through all the answers:   serving others while doing something you are passionate about is highly rewarding.

Like my mom, who was also a 4-H leader and Sunday School teacher, I am passionate about kids.  (Maybe that’s why it was easy to say “yes” to speaking to you today!)  One of my greatest and most memorable volunteer jobs was at the Ronald McDonald House in Akron, Ohio.  It wasn’t glamorous work – every week it seemed like I got toilet-scrubbing and refrigerator- cleaning duty.  But I also got to share with emotionally exhausted parents who needed a clean, warm, comfortable place to land after a difficult day at the hospital with their sick children.   

I am passionate about music, and would probably sit and play the piano 8 hours a day if I could.  So once a week, my "band" (me and four gentlemen, two of whom are over 90!) play for the residents of the Lutheran Community Home while they eat their lunch.  It’s not exactly great music, but it is great fun for both the band members and the residents; they are always happy to see us and so appreciative, despite the fact that we play the same songs almost every week.

I am passionate about teaching.  Although I was trained as an English teacher, I have taught art, music, sewing, quilting and scrapbooking as a volunteer.  For the past 6 years, I have taught a knitting class twice a month at the Jackson County Public Library.  In turn, the knitters in my group have made many items for distribution to those in need – baby caps to Riley Hospital, scarves for kids who “age out” of foster care, afghans for women in Afghanistan, just so they know that women on the other side of the world are thinking about and praying for them.  You never know when passing on your knowledge of something you are passionate about might just spark a passion in someone else. 

And finally, I am passionate about changing the world.  When I went away to college, that’s what I thought I was going to do.  I was going to follow my dad’s example, get involved in politics and change the world that way.   It didn't take me long to realize that it probably wasn't going to work out that way!  Luckily, I  started to study the writings of  Mother Teresa (one of my personal heroes), and realized that changing the world happens one person at a time, one little thing at a time.
One bag of groceries at a time, one hot meal at a time, one rescued puppy at a time, one warm coat at a time, one ride to the cancer center at a time.

To paraphrase Mother Teresa, it doesn't really matter how much you are able to do, but with how much love you do it. 

I can tell you how much I have learned from volunteering.  How much I have grown as a person, how many friends I have made, how much satisfaction I get from helping others, and how tired I am at the end of a busy day.  But the best way for you to understand how good volunteering makes you feel is to do it yourself.
Find your passion.
Give of yourself.
I can promise you, it will change you in ways you can never imagine. 

I would like to leave you with these words, taken from a Franciscan blessing: 

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. 
Thank you.  And peace to you all. 


  1. love it! and totally not dweebish!!

  2. Girl, sign me up now!! You nailed it. :)