Confessions of a Volunteer

Don't get me wrong: I love to help people. But sometimes my motivation is to help myself, too, and that's the beauty of public service - you can do both at the same time. Just expect the unexpected.

(Illustration by Michaael Witte)
By Natalie Bailey
November 7, 2008
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I spent Friday afternoons during college in a dimly lit apartment coated with the smell of medicated talcum powder. Portraits of William Shatner covered the walls, stuffed vampires and aliens served as throw pillows and battery-operated robots as pets. I was there for one purpose: to co-write X-Files episodes.

I landed in this bizarre place after responding to a classified ad in the campus newspaper nested among solicitations for baby sitters and ovaries. Before you get the wrong impression, understand that I had never seen an episode of the popular sci-fi series and that this ad read, "Brain-damaged adult seeks volunteer aide and writer."

As a campus-bound writing student looking to do good, this seemed like just the resume-builder for me. In practice, it was quickly clear that though the marketable skills I'd gain would be limited, I could give this person company, and that seemed like enough. Honestly, I would have been satisfied with a Mountain Dew (her drink of choice) and some conversation, but my writing partner had her priorities set to a different dial. So for three years, amid taking inventory of her extensive VHS collection and categorizing piles of clippings into binders, my coauthor and I churned out plotlines purely for the art of it. Not only were we keeping the spirit of the characters from this canceled show alive, but also the practice elevated her spirit more than I could have imagined. Despite what was exposed as my lack of passion for science-fiction writing, we became close, albeit on her terms. We even planned convention trips together where I was to purchase some custom-made vampire fangs just like the ones she wore.

This was not the beginning of my volunteer career, but it brought things into perspective. I have been volunteering since I was a teenager, and though it would be easy to say it has been entirely normal and altruistic, it hasn't. While my 10-plus years of service have been fundamentally founded in a sincere drive to better the world, admittedly my motives at times have been shallower than the average teen's ambition to impress a college admissions counselor or the typical college student's desire to attract potential employers. I joined the Key Club, my first venture in volunteering, to organize food drives and collect coats, sure, but also to spend Wednesday mornings looking at our cute president. This isn't to say things ever go the way I envision they will (X-Files episodes, case in point). Regardless, I keep volunteering.

Promoting the nobility of public service is popular these days, and now, with our economy teetering, nonprofits need all the manpower they can get. But for me -- and I know I'm not alone -- volunteering is not only my way of giving back to society, it's my self-prescribed social club and a habit I don't want to break. I am part of a generation of truth seekers who have graduated from colleges and moved to new cities for jobs. We blog; we're on Facebook; but we still need real connections. Helping people aside, I volunteer for the same reasons I go out on a Saturday night: to meet interesting people, gain experience, and search for the love of my life. While this might sound selfish, I have found personal gain to be an almost inevitable, albeit paradoxical, byproduct of selflessness. Anyone who has volunteered can attest to that.

"For some, volunteering is a way to become familiar with the community they now reside in, or a way to meet people," says Sherry McClintock, state program director for the Massachusetts chapter of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

See? It doesn't sound so bad when she says it, right? Besides, it's difficult to negate the good that results from this brand of self-interest.

"There's nothing wrong with considering the benefits an activity will have not only for the community, but also for yourself," 26-year-old Curtis Blyden says. Blyden, who grew up in Boston and now lives in Cambridge, was first exposed to volunteering as a child when he was assigned a Big Brother. He went on to join the Peace Corps and now organizes volunteer service events for the nonprofit City Year.

Thanks, Curtis. Now, I'm certain I'm not the only one who goes to a nursing-home social thinking that, aside from bringing vibrancy to a senior citizen's day, it's a way to meet like-minded people, not to mention a surrogate grandma.

Weighing an activity by asking "What's in it for me?" is part of human nature. The fact is, in one way, shape, or form, there's always something, though it's most often not the expected. Whether it was teaching an adult computer class, escorting the elderly to church, timing Special Olympics races, walking dogs at the animal shelter, or running an audio book club for the blind, I have never come away from volunteering without being sideswiped by a new understanding about myself or the people around me.

Project: Assist in dance class for at-risk youth

Why: Serve as a positive role model

What's in it for me: I like to dance!

Lesson: Unexpected common ground

I was always looking for opportunities to dance, so participating in hip-hop classes with children from transitional housing -- a program intended to expose the underprivileged to artistic expression -- seemed like just my thing. It wasn't until well after I'd committed myself that I realized that, though I had plenty of exposure to artistic movement, I was lacking in the hip-hop department. Images from other dance classes I had taken over the past months, my strongest credential in this gig, filled me with insecurities. Often the instructor reminded the class -- while making unmistakable eye contact with me -- to lose the jazz hands and loosen up. I practiced my fist pumps in the privacy of my apartment, but this only aggravated my feelings of inadequacy. But when the music began and I followed a different instructor, I realized the huge advantage I had over these 8-year-olds as a fairly uninhibited, well-coordinated adult. They may have had a better sense of rhythm and have known what "Chicken Noodle Soup" meant, but at least I knew my left from my right. Maybe I could help them, after all.

Believe it or not, the satisfaction did not reside in my newly realized upper hand, but in something more surprising, considering the circumstances. After class one day, we took the kids for pizza. Though I was then more in my element, my attempts to talk about Hannah Montana and Kim Possible weren't working, so I was elated when one of the girls turned to me and asked, "Do you know how to spell dinosaur?" When she proceeded to recite each letter in the correct order, I felt we had accomplished something special. It wasn't krumping, but it was just as cool.

Project: Socialize at an AIDS rehab center

Why: Provide some company

What's in it for me: Guilt-free doughnuts

Lesson: Sick people are still people.

Seeing up close the dignity and humanity of AIDS victims was one of the heavy goals of these get-togethers. But even here, I was confronted with another light moment about spelling.

When I arrived one Sunday morning, I didn't know what to expect beyond coffee and newspapers. The residents were mostly in wheelchairs, but almost all carried with them remnants of formerly wild lives, including skull rings, spiked dog collars, black eyeliner, and a transparent distrust. Our small talk of old nightclubs and politics morphed into a heated game of Scrabble in which I was appointed referee. This was unfortunate, as I have never been one for black-and-white rules, particularly when playing games with terminally ill people.

Sickness, however, did not translate into charity, and almost every word was challenged. Under pressure, my spelling skills failed me, and I foresaw a debacle on par with Dan Quayle's potato incident. When the word "admunizabilquox" appeared (promising at least one triple-letter score), I cowered. How was I to decree that I didn't believe this word even existed? But with six impatient faces waiting for a ruling, I accepted my call of duty. I consulted the manual and interpreted that French words were off-limits. I like to think I left with everyone's integrity intact, but I can't help wondering if the joke was on me all along.

Project: Writing life stories of nursing home residents

Why: Jog memories, create legacies

What's in it for me: I want to go to heaven.

Lesson: It doesn't hurt to make believe.

Blind and confined to a wheelchair, Arthur had an agile mind that belied his frail appearance. Once a week, I visited his nursing home room and asked him about his life. Like most New Yorkers, he was sweet and well meaning underneath his embittered facade. In rare moments of generosity, Arthur would say, "I'm glad you're here," a sentiment that was sometimes followed by "Are we going to make any money off these stories?"

I often interrupted his routine dinner of Boost and evening listening - listening! - to Wheel of Fortune; regardless, Arthur was usually happy to go into great detail about his latest ailment. In his low, gravelly voice that suggested everything was a conspiracy, he told me he worked every day of his life without any time off and put away a quarter of a million dollars, only to have his savings drained by his current situation. It was not until weeks into our sessions, however, that Arthur sang a few words in a high-pitched, shaky voice and mentioned that he had been a vaudeville performer. Arthur had traveled the world, lived next to Walt Disney, and said that once upon a time, he had shaken hands with Hitler (then told him he was a bastard). While most of my attempts to verify these tales led to dead ends, I came away with a few truths: First and foremost, take some vacation. But more important, if the facts of your life bog you down, pretending is a forgivable offense.

Project: Meals on Heels

Why: Feed the hungry and homebound

What's in it for me: Glimpses of apartments in the most expensive part of town

Lesson: Sometimes life actually resembles a romantic comedy.

As you might have guessed, I hold a special place in my heart for the isolated. While I cannot unequivocally say that all people subscribing to Meals on Heels are irreproachably homebound (there were some suspicious comments made about the weather), I certainly felt for anyone whose meals consisted of what I was charged with delivering.

One morning, I woke up early to partake in this service and was paired with the one guy volunteering that day. The thing is, a lot of women volunteer. The problem I have found is that men rarely do. What results is a group of desperate women and a few hapless males, likely volunteering as part of a community-service court sentence. At any rate, on my special day, my partner held the door for me; he was witty; he was charming; he was the embodiment of why I was there. I thought we had a connection, especially when he hugged me goodbye. Regretfully, my hands were covered in rubber gloves and bleach as I was cleaning food juice out of our carrying containers. My odyssey for love had landed me here; too bad the journey had been so lacking that I had chosen a baseball cap over a shower and mascara that morning.

Turns out he was a movie star. Well, an almost movie star at the time. I haven't heard from him since he was nominated for that Golden Globe, but don't think I didn't consider using the number he left in case of a meals-on-heels delivery emergency. He's officially "the one that got away." But at least when I watch his television show or rent that new chick flick he's in, I can relive our morning delivering cartons smelling of gravy and applesauce. When I find myself in such reverie, I lean into the closest person around and say dreamily, "He's just like that in real life."

Like any satisfying Saturday night out on the town, volunteering has been anything but ordinary for me. But when most Saturday nights lead to a disappointed me eating (organic) cheese puffs and watching some old movie on PBS, volunteering is my tried-and-true way to liven things up. No, it's not just a trendy and selfish thing to do, but the personal gain paired with the societal benefit create an irresistibly ideal combination. As a result, volunteering is a lifestyle choice that has become part of who I am, just like being a Mac user or making my bed in the morning. What's in it for me, then? Nothing, and everything. Plus, let's not forget that a movie star did hug me. Just so there's no confusion, that falls on the everything side.

Natalie Bailey is a freelance writer in New York. Send comments to

My Gift

Norberto Leon

35, Allston

Gift: Architectural designs for Habitat for Humanity Greater Boston

I just finished up the plans for a 1,100-square-foot home in Needham. The process didn't differ much from the work I do at [architecture firm] Casali Group, except that everybody had a say in the design. It's a bit of a challenge to meet everyone's requirements, but the result ends up being a compromise everyone can be happy with. What Habitat is doing is providing stable environments for families so they can focus on family life, school, and work. I see how this relates to what I went through when I first moved to this country from Spain 18 years ago. I wouldn't have been able to go to school and start my career here if it were not for the generous people who did things like welcome me into their homes and give me scholarships. Habitat was the perfect thing for me, because I could use all of the skills I've learned here.

Norberto Leon photograph by Joel Benjamin

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