Monday, February 24, 2014

Fourth Monday Susan Speaks: Adventures in volunteering

By Susan C. Price

I always read about retirees who volunteer a great deal and love it. So I figured i should.
    A friend who knew i was “art-inclined” had a friend who was the Operations Director of a local non-profit that uses art to help abused women and children heal. So, i ventured to one of their “volunteer open house” nights.
    The Director toured me through the facility. From what i could see and the little e-research i had done...i could tell that this was a grounded, 20-year “successful” non-profit, well-run, well-organized, with lots of community (read “money”) support. So what they do must be “working.” Good to know. Impressive.

    We were then seated at several round tables which held pretty bunches of colored pens and pencils in the center. “Oh boy, “ I thought, “love to play with color!” The Executive Director, who had started this non-profit on the proverbial shoe string, and not surprisingly was an abuse-survivor herself, outlined the history and present and general process of the non-profit. As we introduced ourselves around the tables it was clear that current volunteers felt passionately positive about this non-profit and the experience of being involved. Some of the staff, volunteers, and “customers” openly shared their abuse history and power of survival.
    After a short break, we returned to the tables to create something with those enticing art supplies. I was reaching for something purple when the Director said, “And first, we will do a guided meditation.” I hesitated for a moment and then proceeded to quietly make something pretty. For myself, I have no interest in meditation, guided or otherwise, and i was not feeling stressed or overwhelmed. I was also not comfortable with the language of this level of emotional pain and survival. (not proud of that...but there it is)
    As I drove home, I decided that this did not feel good to me. I was uncomfortable with the “customers” and some of the staff clearly having a great strength of character and having been forged into stronger iron than i by their experiences. I had nothing to give in that situation. Also, the craft project approach did not interest me.
    And finally, i thought, Wait, folks always talk about ‘giving back,’ and i have worked in government, in welfare, and then with three non-profits (working on problems of affordable housing, after-school tutoring in the affordable housing neighborhoods, and helping low-income seniors thrive in affordable housing)...I have done my giving. Also, i had decided long ago NOT to attempt to be a licensed skills are more in the organizational administrative area. I don’t DO “services.” (Yeah, i kinda think it’s a “cheat” too, i was really uncomfortable with all the stories of abuse. Oh well, the things we tell ourselves.)

And then, a painting workshop acquaintance sent us all an email about the “Mirror, Mirror” project, which connects artists with homeless teens and pairs them up to make portraits of each other. Of course, a fund-raising art show follows. I could not exactly tell from the written materials all that they hoped this would do for the teens and the artists. But i figured i could try.
    Last week i showed up at the local Teen Drop-In center and eventually a teen named “G” was convinced to sit for a pen and ink portrait. Then “J” sat down for one. He said he hopes to be a model and get into acting, but when i offered him the materials to do a portrait of me, he declined. “I’m REALLY lazy,” he stated.

    Then, just as i was packing up to leave, “C” sat down. They were all very good at sitting still. I can’t draw and hold much of a conversation at the same time…so did not learn a whole lot. Did not figure that was the gig anyway.
    “C” then did a very good portrait of me.
    Actually, both of the two portraits the kids did of me were delightfully spot on!
    The volunteers who knew “C” were all excited, as he had not interacted much with the program, and was clearly talented in this area. So, the Creator/Director of this program asked if “C” and i would be interviewed on tape. As i love to talk, that was really cool with me. At one point, she asked if I thought we could cure homelessness. I thanked her for existing and believing we can, “but i am old,” i said, “and doubtful that such a complex issue can be ‘fixed’.”...I also declined to enthusiastically say that my estimations of homeless teens had been dramatically altered by the one afternoon. “But,” i added, “there is no harm and great good in art and conversation.” Of course i did not put it that coherently or cogently...but i like the sound of it. I will go back...we shall see. I painted my first portrait this afternoon.

Copyright © 2014 by Susan C. Price
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  1. There's volunteering, and then there's volunteering to do something you can put your heart and your art into. Illustrated with new drawings and painting. [Thank you, Susan!]

  2. It sounds like you picked the right place to volunteer. Enjoy!

  3. When I got to the "And first we will do a guided meditation" part, of course I was immobilized by a fit of laughing/coughing: imagining what comes next. I wish that, when I run into stuff I'm either uncomfortable with or just plain tired of, I could have the presence of mind to just "quietly make something pretty." Thanks Sister: great piece.