Thursday, November 08, 2007

My Bumpy Road to Happy Volunteering

Doing volunteer work is a good way for retirees to keep active and to help others. My own road to becoming a volunteer was rather bumpy; that probably has a lot to do with my quirky personality and fierce independence, but anyway, here is what happened.

After I retired, and my husband died less than a year later, I realized that I needed to do something besides sit around and feel sorry for myself. "Volunteer," I was advised. Someone suggested holding babies in a hospital ward, but that idea scared me to death. I’d never held a small baby in my life, as far as I could remember, and it wasn’t something that I was prepared to do. Mind you, I have nothing against babies, but . . . .Another friend suggested theater ushering. That interested me, but I realized that walking up and down sloping aisles or steps and standing for long periods of time were not possible for me.

Some time later, a large national organization to which I belong put out a call for volunteer workers at its national convention, to be held in Chicago that year. I filled out the form. This is more my style, I thought. I’d participated in many conferences while I was teaching.

Eventually, we were called–hundreds of us–to an orientation meeting at McCormick Place. O.K. It was a mob scene, but I absorbed the necessary information. The problem came afterward, when we were lined up in a hot, crowded hallway to get our individual assignments. The line stretched for blocks, and it didn’t seem to be moving. The harried people at the tables seemed unable to find individual names on voluminous multi-paged lists, and those at the front of the line seemed to have problems and stories to tell. I guess most lonely seniors are eager to talk. I’d never seen anything so slow and inefficient!

After at least an hour and a half of standing and sweating, I finally dared to cut into the line to observe what was happening. Apparently, nothing was, except that the mob was growing impatient and overheated. I walked to the end of the table and spoke up: "Take my name off the list!" I walked out. I still belong to that organization, but volunteering for it is out. Any organization that treats volunteers like cattle turns me off.

At about the same time, a male friend told me about his efforts to volunteer. Probably because he appeared relatively strong and able for a senior, he was constantly being asked to act as a volunteer security guard at various events (this was not in Chicago). No one ever asked him what he wanted to do.

Finally, through an Internet search, I discovered volunteer opportunities at the Chicago Cultural Center. I was vaguely familiar with this landmark building, but I had little idea what went on there. I thought it might be interesting to find out, so I went there and met the Director of Volunteers. She became a friend almost immediately; we were both writers, and we both had books coming out soon. She immediately recommended that I join the Illinois Woman’s Press Association (it turned out that she was in charge of membership; the organization has nothing to do with the Cultural Center). I was surprised; I was not and never had been a "press woman," nor had I heard of that organization. My horizons were being broadened rapidly. It turns out that the IWPA welcomes book authors too, even unknown ones, so I was in. I am happy that I joined.

The Cultural Center has a large number of volunteers who do everything from stuffing envelopes to working information desks to staffing information booths at Chicago’s summer festivals, as well as ushering at various concerts and other events in the building. The volunteers are mostly senior, mostly educated, and very interesting people. And I’d found a caring human being running the show! No cattle calls here, as far as I could tell.

My first volunteer assignment was in one of the Mayor’s information booths at Taste of Chicago, the city’s huge celebration of gluttony. The work involved handing out brochures and providing directions to visitors. This was interesting, and I learned more about the city’s parks and other attractions so that I could pass the information on. My fellow workers were interesting, too. We shared life stories. However, there were two problems: Chicago’s late June heat and humidity and the need to stand for long periods of time. My body didn’t stand up to either very well. I soon learned that this was not a good assignment for me, much as I had hoped it would be. It really bothered me that a couple of volunteers in their eighties handled it much better than I did.

From then on, I specified inside-only, mostly seated assignments. That led me to information desk duty as a fill-in for 3 ½ hour shifts at either the Randolph Street or Washington Street desk. This appealed to me. I was able to greet and talk to many visitors from everywhere, and I quickly learned more about my own city than I had ever known. I learned a bit about the landmark Cultural Center, formerly Chicago’s Public Library, with its Tiffany dome, mosaic ceilings featuring authors’ names, meeting rooms, art galleries, and regular Monday and Wednesday lunch hour concerts. I learned about the Renaissance Court Senior Center and the Chicago Visitors’ Center off the Randolph Street lobby. The latter is filled with more tourist information about the city than I could absorb in a lifetime.

I had found my volunteer niche. I asked for and got a regular Thursday morning shift at the Washington Street information desk, where things tend to be quiet except when huge groups of school children come in for special concerts, tours, or other events. I enjoy sitting beneath the mosaic names of my favorite American authors. It’s a beautiful lobby. I enjoy talking to the staff and visitors. When things are very quiet, I read or work Sudoku puzzles. I even wrote several installments of a short story entitled "Volunteer" as I sat there, and I developed ideas for some blog posts. If I could walk better or climb stairs, I might choose more active assignments, but alas. Anyway, I’m happy where I am.

I realize that this assignment doesn’t sound very exciting or charitable. However, my point is that it suits me. To me, helping tourists enjoy their Chicago visits is a worthy pursuit. If, instead, you are devoted to a certain charity or cause and can provide valuable help, go for it! If your church or other organization needs your help, by all means do it! If you are very active and prefer outdoor assignments, fine. Volunteer duty choices are very personal and individual, and that’s as it should be. We all tend to be better at doing something we like to do. Don’t get discouraged if your first choice is not a good fit. You should be doing something you enjoy, especially if you’re working without pay.

And a final note to those in charge of volunteers: we senior citizens deserve respect. Never assume that we’re all alike in our abilities or needs or wants. Take the time to explore our interests and treat us with understanding and compassion. You may be able to learn from us, as well.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photo: Washington Street Lobby, Chicago Cultural Center, by the author


storyteller said...

Thanks for sharing your story. It gives me hope that I'll find my niche if I remain open to possibility and aware of what I don't want. Learning to say "No thank you" (and make it stick) has taken considerable time and energy, but I've made real progress on that front.

When I retired from teaching almost 7 years ago, I volunteered in my sister's kindergarten class two days a week and enjoyed the experience thoroughly. When SHE retired almost 3 years ago I was invited to stay on and help others, but decided I'd spent enough time in public schools. Helping my sister was a gift of love (and increased the time we spent together and sole surviving members of our immediate family). She's traveling the USA in an RV with her husband currently, while I explore Virtual Space in the Blogosphere. We're grateful for Verizon's unlimited free cell to cell minutes and talk more often than when she was living close by.

Friends and colleagues encourage me to do a variety of things (supervising student teachers, conducting workshops on effective teaching strategies and a host of other topics, teaching graduate students, etc.) but I've "done my time in public schools" for now at least and am ready for new experiences. I've considered many of the activities you've written of ... but none captures my imagination ... yet. For now, I'm getting comfortable with letting myself be known finally (just as I am) ... sharing through my two fledging blogs and leaving occasional comments as I meander through this Virtual Community ... learning as I go.

This week I learned about Google Reader and am thrilled at this simplified way to keep myself current. For now ... this is enough, but my eyes are open to opportunity all the time.

seniorwriter said...

Thanks. My advice is to listen to yourself, not to others. What's right for one is not right for all.

MMH said...

I was so pleased to find your post about senior volunteering, but for a reason other than the post's primary subject matter. You spoke about the Chicago Cultural Center and how it used to be the main public library. A mystery is solved.
Over 40 years ago, I used to go to that beautiful library, up the marble staircase to the main reference room to pour over those Red Reader's Guides. I was looking for information on Houston TX as a way of preparing for our move there. At the time, it seemed as far away as Australia.
Then, last July I returned to Chicago for the Blog Her conference. For pure nostalgia, I looked for the public library. I found it, but it didn't seem the same and I lamented on a blog post that the old had been covered up by escalators and sheetrock. How I wish I'd known that the building I loved has been transformed into the Chicago Cultural Center. I guess that means I'll return to Chicago some day for another visit in order to see it again. Now it's time for an addendum to my Chicago posts last July. Thanks for a wonderful blog with wonderful content.

seniorwriter said...

Thanks for your comment, MMH. Apparently you visited the relatively new Harold Washington Library. It's more suitable for today's library needs, but it's nothing like the historic Cultural Center: no escalators there! Do come back and see us sometime (I'm only there one morning a week, but it's definitely a building worth visiting.)