The Accidental Volunteer

Monday we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a national holiday.  Martin Luther King Day has become a "national day of service," when we're supposed to take advantage of a few free extra hours, and do something to help others. I plan to sleep in and have lunch with my daughter and a couple of friends.  I could call this service to the people I love, but that would be a lie.  It's just what I want to do tomorrow.

But I was wondering if Monday could be a day to at least THINK about service and volunteering?  Maybe look at some options and decide on a few hours or days during the coming year that would work for volunteering?  And then take some steps toward it?  Maybe fill out an application?

The reality is that you often can't volunteer on the spur of the moment.  You usually need to plan ahead.  Apply.  Interview.  Pass a background check.  Get a vaccination, depending.

I know these things because, in my quest for counseling internship hours, I accidentally became a volunteer.  And now it's sort of taken on a life of its own.

I started off at a community center for folks with chronic, severe mental illness.

And then I added on a shift as a volunteer chaplain at our local hospital.

Then I found this super-cool clinic for at-risk children, where they let me do play therapy on the fly in the waiting room.  Friends, you haven't lived until 6 kids are all trying to get into a play kitchen the size of a shoe box, and it's your job to keep them from killing each other.  Therapeutically.

Last summer, a friend of mine got me mixed up in decorating a room for homeless families at a local shelter, combining mad love for HGTV with volunteering.

And then another friend of mine went and had quintuplets this fall.  That's five (count them, 5) babies at once.  So now I put in a few hours each week with the cutie pies.  (Of course there's a blog about the babies.  Click here and see all the cuteness for yourself.)

So here's what I love about volunteering.

I've met the nicest people while volunteering.  

At the clinic for at-risk kids, there's a "foster grandma" who's been working there 5 days a week, 8 hours a day, ever since she retired 4 years ago.  Her kids tell her she should be putting her feet up and resting, and she thinks that's just crazy.  She took a week off before Christmas, and that day a couple of teenage girls came in, saw me, and said, "Where is Miss Hazel?"  (Subtext:  you are chopped liver.)  They told me that Miss Hazel loves them, and would be disappointed to miss them.  I know that's the truth.  And I feel incredibly honored to know Miss Hazel, and others like her, who quietly lay down their lives, day after day, in love.

I've learned a whole lot from the people I'm supposed to be helping.  

As a volunteer chaplain, I've spent a fair amount of time with elderly patients who know that they are dying in the near future.  One gentleman just had that special peace about him, and when I asked him about it, he said, "I have loved my wife and my children.  God loves me.  I've had a great life.  I'm ready to go."  Wow.  The essence of a life well-lived.

Volunteering makes me go home grateful.

When I work with people who are one step away from homelessness, or who are terribly ill, or who face difficult life circumstances, it makes me count my blessings.  It just does.  I have a bad memory.  Out of sight, out of mind, and before you know it, I'm thinking that what I really need to be happy is a new pair of boots.  Volunteering keeps me in touch with reality.  The reality is, my life is full of blessing.  Overflowing.  I need to be grateful, grateful, grateful.

Volunteering makes me want to be generous.

Probably my most difficult moment in volunteering this year came at the clinic for at-risk children.  I was coloring with a little boy, maybe 4 or 5 years old, and while we were chatting, he told me that his mom was a new mom.  I knew he meant she was his foster mom.  And then he said, "Yeah, I'm her new boy.  I'm the one with all the bruises."

A few weeks ago, after Sandy Hook, I quoted Mr. Rogers:  "Look for the people who are helping."

We can be those people.

Dr. King said it this way:  "The time is always ripe for doing right."


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