October 5, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Let’s be the first to raise our hand and help

Cynthia DewesWe’re always suspicious of the guy who raises his hand first, aren’t we? Even if we’d like to help with something, we don’t want to seem like an eager beaver or a toady. Just like kids, we need to be cool at all times despite wanting to volunteer.

Once we get past that initial hesitation, however, we may find that volunteering is not only satisfying for us, but also that it’s the life blood of many ­organizations. Hospitals, schools, churches and especially non-profit groups of all kinds depend upon “the kindness of strangers” and their generosity.

Back in the day, women were the most numerous volunteers because most of them stayed home to raise their families. They had more flexible schedules, allowing them to help during hours when others, mostly the men, were away at work. Furthermore, their service required no special clothing or equipment, and gasoline for transporting them to their tasks was cheap.

Like most of my women friends then, I volunteered my time for various causes instead of giving money, which always was in short supply in a large family like mine.

Some volunteers did “grunt” work, such as sweeping floors and changing beds at retreat houses or cleaning up after parish events. Others served food to finicky grade-schoolers or refereed Girl Scouts and soccer players. Some tended the lawns and flowers at places like the Benjamin Harrison Home or helped handicapped kids go on field trips.

Some of the cultural outfits like the symphony or museums called their volunteers by a fancier name: “docent.” But those (mostly) ladies were still just guides, steering the curious through the rare and beautiful things while keeping an eye on their careless fingers or worse yet, their toddlers.

Men’s volunteering usually involved organizations such as the Boy Scouts or sports teams like Little League. They helped with more strenuous parish projects by setting up new playground equipment or booths for festivals. They ran parish financial campaigns, and drove trucks to pick up people’s castoffs for the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Whatever was one’s talent or lack of talent, there was a volunteer job begging to put it to use. Today, with both parents often working away from home, the number of volunteers has dropped ­considerably. People just can’t manage to find time for it while maintaining full schedules of work and family events, and who can blame them?

Still, there are many needs that require actual hands-on attention, and throwing government or private money at them is not the answer. Maybe we should re-examine our priorities, our obligations and the time required to fulfill them. Maybe, just maybe, we can fit in a few hours we didn’t know we could spare and be surprised by how satisfying it is for us and for others.

Single people can be Big Brothers or Sisters and have fun with kids at the same time. Retired folks can stay alert and healthy by sharing their knowledge in conducting tours or doing office work for historical or civic organizations.

Anyone with a good heart can visit nursing homes just to sit and listen to those who have no one to talk to. After all, the first volunteer was Christ, who served us all in fulfilling his destiny. We know that good hearts come from God.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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