Friday, June 27, 2014


My mother volunteered.  She was extremely compassionate, but not in a “oh isn’t that sad” kind of way.  No, she saw someone sufferings and did something about it.  She started many organizations to help folks who had fallen on hard times, particularly women who had to leave their homes because of abuse.  And hungry people.  She just wanted to feed every single hungry person she encountered.  I suppose this is because she had grown up poor and knew what hunger was.

Service was the culture of our home and I learned from my mother’s influence that I got a huge  benefit from helping others.   My siblings tend to write checks for causes, which they can well afford to do.  But I was always more like my mother - not having a lot of money to give but wanting to DO something, concrete and tangible to make someone’s life a little easier.   It is a kind a feel great, spiritual uplifting that can become very addictive.

Over the years I have volunteered for many service organizations.   In the most recent years I concentrated on a local organization that helps people, mostly the elderly, with rides and chores to help them stay independent.  I had my regulars who I took grocery shopping and banking weekly, one man I took for his dialysis twice a week, many times I drove people to their chemo or radiation appointments.  But then I got sick myself and it became impossible to commit to weekly needs.  So I began occasionally substituting for other volunteers when I felt well enough, and then eventually stopped doing anything.

I always told myself that I would get back to it as soon as I felt better.  But I have felt better for quite a while and I still have not called and asked them to give me new assignments.   I think in many ways I burnt out.   Taking elderly people shopping and doing errands is fun and I have learned invaluable life lessons from my elders,  many of whom I became quite attached to.  But it always ends.  They become too fragile and have to move in with their children somewhere else.  Or they die.  It has been hard on me to constantly lose the folks I had become so fond of.  

So I am thinking that I might try something else, but I don’t know what.  I am trying to remember those activities that have given me the most joy - although I know that that is not, or should not be, my motivation.  

By nature of my job I used to sit on way too many boards and committees but gave all of those up as being a waste of time.  I don’t want to sit around talking about getting things done.  I want to do something.  

I used to love working for Habitat for Humanity.  I love building things and that also satisfied my need to do physical work to control my anxiety issues.  But Habitat has become wildly popular and now there are many organizations, with lots of skills and younger backs, that do the work much more efficiently than my poor arthritic body can.  I am now in the way.   I used to help them get their building approvals, but now even that has become routine and they don’t call on me very often for that.

Through my job I often I occasionally encountered people who I know needed help and I would get involved with their lives to try to help.  But recently I got so burned by a woman who trashed my every effort and then also harassed every person I had contacted for specific help.  No matter what we did to help, it was never enough.  For example, she told me she needed a fence for security reasons.   I  installed the fence with materials I got a friend to donate, but then she didn’t like the style and started calling the person who donated the fence and harassing him, questioning why he wouldn’t donate the 10 times more expensive vinyl fencing.   One builder friend I had called on to help offered to do a significant amount of labor for her if she purchased the materials.  She started calling him 10 times a day, saying he was greedy.  It became unbearable and for the first time in my life I had to call her and say “sorry, I can’t do this anymore.”   Now I am extremely  wary of extending myself, and especially my contacts, in the personal lives of others.  Maybe that is an excuse, I don’t know.   I wonder if my mother experienced this.  Most likely, although I never heard her complain about it the way I am now complaining..  

And then, as I was writing this, I also came to the realization that I did the most volunteering at times when I was most busy - when my kids were young, when they were involved in sports, when my work was the busiest, etc.  Now that I am semi-retired and have more free time for myself, I have become a slug.  It reminds me of that old saying - “if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.”  

Looking back I know I have just come through two difficult chapters in my life.  First was the hardest (and most fruitful) therapy of my life, and then all the emotional and physical challenges of breast cancer.  While I was going through them I was in survival mode and not thinking about much else. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.   But now I also clearly see that so many other areas of my life got neglected - physical, emotional and spiritual.  

And so I am trying to rebuild and the need to get back to service is looming.   Volunteering, much like sleeping under the stars, is what feeds my soul.  I know this to be true.  Yet on the other hand, I am feeling very selfish and don’t want to do things that bore me, that gift me with attachments that inevitably end in death (how do people emotionally survive working in hospice????)  or work with people who are so emotionally needy that it becomes soul sucking for me.  

Okay, I just read that back and realize that my attitude may need a little adjusting.  Maybe a LOT of adjusting.  I remember when I used to grocery shop for a homebound man who was the grumpiest person I ever met.  Nothing I did was right - the bananas were too soft, the eggs too large, I bought the wrong brand of this or that.   Then he would go through the recipe and argue about the price of everything.   I wanted to give up, like every volunteer before me had.  But when I complained to my mother she simply asked me what my motivation was - was I doing this for him or for me?    Crap.  

Well, I have long ago realized that I will never measure up to my mother.  So I guess it is my hope to find something to do that will satisfy both.  So I will put this question out there - have you ever done some service work that you found both helpful to others and enriching for yourself?  Something that made you soar and didn’t eventually drag the joy out of you?  



  1. Burnout in the helping professions is always high. To always be awash in, and often impotent to truly meet people's needs, can be "soul sucking". I just read an article that 80% of pastors are discouraged in their role and for every 20 pastors who enter ministry, only one retires from that profession. I don't think there is any shame in taking breaks from volunteering and certainly mixing up the activities you do will help keep you refreshed. The reality is that fewer and fewer people do volunteer so the people left standing are shouldering more than their fair share of the work.

    Some activities that might not be so physically demanding or emotionally draining - working in a blood bank, park and trail maintenance, animal shelters or fostering, Meals on Wheels delivery, or fundraising.

    God bless you and all those who pay it forward.

    1. I do agree about the burnout, I see a lot of it. I think I'm struggling between always seeing so much need, and feeling that I am so tired of seeing so much need.

      But these are great ideas, thanks!

  2. I love Sue's ideas of park and trail maintenance and animal shelter volunteering. Those are great suggestions!
    I know you will find something that will satisfy your need to give back without draining you dry. You are a good person to pick it back up and keep making a difference.


    1. I could never do animal shelter stuff (I can't stand to see animals in cages), or fostering like you do (I couldn't stand giving them up). And thank you for not suggesting that I teach self defense :)

      Trail maintenance is actually very doable for me and I will probably do that. But I still think I need to help out with the human condition.

  3. My job is in the helping professions, so if I volunteered, it would have to be something NOT involving people! Trail maintenance at a park or something like that.

    My comments seem to be just disappearing, so I don't know if this one will go through. I'm going ot copy it before I hit publish.

    1. Yeah, I get that. And good for you. I am a public servant and that can really make you not like people. But I have been so blessed it is important for me to pay that forward, But without all the gut wrenching stuff.

      Sorry about your comments. I have that problem too, but I never know why.

  4. How about the local library or a local arts organization? Just don't join the board, hehe

    1. I'd love to volunteer at our library but unfortunately, because of my work, we have had some philosophical differences. Local arts could be interesting. I have absolutely no talent though. Even behind the scenes talent. But I may look into that a little more. Thanks!

  5. AnonymousJune 30, 2014

    We love working with or for animals. Last year we worked distributing dog food that was about to expire to local shelters. It was great work - but they lost the warehouse we were using. We have a Ronald McDonald house nearby that always needs meals, cleaning and office volunteers - maybe something like that. We need to do more as well - it is just getting back up on the bike! I am sure you will find the right thing.

    1. Our Ronald McDonald House, like Habitat, has become so popular that they actually need volunteers. When my girls did Girl Scouts, there was a 9 month wait to sign up to provide meals. I guess that is a really good thing.

      But yes, like getting back up on the bike. It's time.

  6. All great ideas. I don't have anything to add except perhaps helping those who have clothing and other items to donate but no way to get it from there to there. And / or in additon to more traditional fund raising, organizing actual or even virtual yard/garage sales with proceeds going to rotating charities. Good Luck.