Monday, August 1, 2011

Five Lessons I (Re-)Learned from Volunteering

For those of you who don't know, the month of July has been one long list of volunteer service at my house. From cub scout day camp to letting one of my closest friends crash on my couch, it has been a very hectic month. The biggest volunteer project I had, came in the form of creative director for my neighborhood's summer connection program. All of these volunteer services have forced me out into the world again after thoroughly enjoying almost a year of working from home, setting my own schedule and having as much time for my craft as I desired.

This month of volunteer work reminded me of several lessons I experienced in my younger years and that I would like to review with you. 1. Not everyone appreciates art. 2. Think big, work small. 3. Work is hard! 4. Commitment is key and 5. Emergence is real.

Not Everyone Appreciates Art

    OK, this is kind of vague and not entirely true. What I did learn is that not everyone likes art, not everyone realizes how hard art is and not everyone will think "Wow, she is an author! That is so cool!!"

     The first day of my volunteer project, I did not know what to expect. (A common feeling with any new job.) But I remembered my many encounters as a child with authors whom I had never heard of before and I thought these kids would be impressed that I was an author. Nope. Not even a little.
    It was... disheartening. I had spent the last year of my life building my career, getting an agent, writing my little brains out and this group of kids were wholly unimpressed that I was going to be giving five hours a day, five days a week of my time to help them learn my craft and (I had hoped) inspire them to follow in similar footsteps.

  There were days when I just wanted to scream with frustration. I was barely able to maintain my blog. My creative energies were completely sapped and it took everything I had to force myself to do some editing in the evenings after chasing 30 to 60 kids all day. I would be lying if I said that I got much done.

    I had to re-develop the tough skin that I protected myself with in college when people would laugh at my dreams.  I had to bite back tears of humiliation and frustration when the children said insensitive and thoughtless things like. "So, basically you are a stay at home mom." Or "My dad can't find a job either." Ouch!

Think Big, Work Small

     This is something my dad taught me during summers when I would help him with work. It applies to every facet of your life. The gist is that you need to be able to see the big picture, and at the same time focus on the small tasks that will get you to the big picture. It is really important to have that big picture so that when your original small steps have to change (as they invariably will) you can adapt them to best suite the big picture.

   When I signed on for this volunteer project, I had planned activities for children ages five to 12 years. That was what I was told. No one knew how many kids there would be in the program, but I figured that there would be other volunteers to help with projects. I planned big. I had craft projects, a plan to work in groups and have the kids make their own movies, an art show at the end for the parents to see all the work the kids had done. I planned on making a huge difference in these kids lives. (In one month in the middle of the summer? Yeah, I was a little naive.)
  Then I got there the first day and found out that my mother and I were the only volunteers signed up and that one lady from the city was going to be there every day... and we had 66 applications for the program. 66 kids to three adults... oh my!

   And what an unruly group of kids, let me tell you! I had kids from three or four years of age, to teenagers up to 19. How was I going to keep all of these kids engaged and entertained with only two other people to help? Let alone teach anyone anything?

   With my big plan still in mind, I adapted the activities as best I could to ensure that it would engage a much larger age group and.. well, there were many days that we had to change plans at the drop of a hat because the children just weren't interested in what we were doing. There were some days that we ended early and there were many days that we spent more time outside while they played with the sports equipment.

Work is Hard
     Now, I guess because I love what I do so very much, I have become a bit immune to this concept. I have been writing for so long that it just comes to me. I haven't suffered from writers block in years and I gravitate towards art that I know. But writing is a job, just like any other. People think that artists and creative-types don't really work. They think of their times in art class and their times in creative writing and they think we do what we do because it comes naturally to us. It's easy.
      I taught an important lesson on our first day. I first asked them how many of them liked to draw, how many liked to write. Several hands went up for drawing, very few went up for writing. A lot of hands did not go up at all. I asked one kid why she didn't raise her hand and she said she didn't like to do either. I asked her why and she said, "because I'm not very good at it." I told them that very few people are good at anything the first time they do it. It takes an average of 10,000 hours to become good at anything. That applies to anything in your life. Art, craftsmanship, school work, playing a musical instrument. Everything.

  So many kids would ask me to help them with something we were doing because it was hard. Then they would sit back and expect me to do it for them. I wouldn't do it. I would offer advice and encourage them to do it themselves. When they would get upset about the way something turned out, I would encourage them to start over, try again. Practice makes better, but perfect practice makes perfect.

   Even if something is hard, if you like what you do it doesn't necessarily feel like work. That doesn't mean it is easy. Work is still hard. That just means that you love what you do!

Commitment is Key

     In this world of instant gratification, commitment has become a dirty word. Very few people have commitment to anything anymore. But without commitment, you will not get anywhere in life. If you quit because it is hard or because it is taking longer than you thought or whatever reason crops up, then you will never reap the benefits.
     I told the kids this, but had my own personal trial by fire about halfway through the program. The adults were exhausted. The kids were very hard to manage, the program wasn't what we had anticipated. The city had initially offered to pay me because I was basically acting as the program director, but then they couldn't find the funds. We had a couple of groups that were warring with each other and the heat was getting to all of us.

   One day, I overheard the kids talking and they used a racial slur... a racial slur that could only apply to me or my family as we were the only ones of that race in the room. After all the time I had given and all the energy I had put into the program they were talking this way about me?! Well, I was under a lot of stress because of several other things going on and though I am not usually one to cry, I burst into tears. Which gave the teenagers something to brag about. They had made the white lady cry.

   They were incredibly disrespectful about the whole thing and my mom totally lost it. She was done. She was not coming back. She quit. I can understand why she did what she did and would be lying if I wasn't tempted to do the same thing. I had a lot on my plate. My house was a disaster, I had other people that needed me. My work was suffering and these kids were completely disrespectful and it just wasn't worth the time.

    But I had committed myself to this project. When I had calmed down, I realized that there were only four or five kids involved in the situation and there were 30 or 40 who had nothing to do with it. What would I accomplish if I quit? I would re-enforce racial stereotypes, I would give my children a reason to have racist feelings. I would effectually abandon a great group of kids, because of a few trouble makers. I stuck to it. There were days that were really hard. They thought by making me cry, they had broken me. They pushed harder to get rid of me. But those that wanted me there, that appreciated what I was doing, reached out more. In the end even the ones who pushed me away were glad I was there and when I offered a program teaching these kids how to use computers to create art, that core group that gave me such a hard time were some of the first to sign up!

Emergence is Real

   Ok, so for those of you who have been out of school too long, Emergence Theory is the concept that the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts. The idea that the value of a home is worth more than each individual piece of wood that went into building it.
     In this case, I went in and worked for four weeks with a group of kids from a low-income area. The point of the program was to keep these kids off the street and keep them from causing mischief. In the beginning there were only three or four out of 66 that I would have said were worth anything. There were maybe ten that were too young to be able to tell. I was working with a tough crowd.

   When it ended last Friday, I wanted to sigh with relief that it was over, but I was also proud. I walked out knowing that every single one of them had the potential to be great. Every single one of them had a gift or a talent. They had grown on me.

    We as a group had overcome racial tensions, had learned great and wonderful things together, had created a community. They had motivated me, the one who wanted to quite on the second week, to give even more of my time to help them become better and to teach them more. We built each other up and as a group we become worth more than even the best of us and had made the worst better than they were when we started.

I didn't get the pay check and I didn't get much work done, but I learned so much from these kids. In the end, despite the hardships, I wouldn't trade this summers volunteering for anything. There are some things I might have done differently, but I would sign up again to help next year in a heart beat. The reminder of life lessons was worth more than the city wanted to pay me anyway!

   I am putting together a free e-book for all my fantastic followers! It is a compilation of some of the activities the kids and I did to help inspire their creative side. I hope that you will find it useful as well. My goal is to have it out to you by the end of August!

In the meantime, what lessons have you learned (or re-learned) this summer and how can you apply it to your craft? Please share in the comments section


  1. Yay, I'm excited for the e-book. It's interesting as I've lived most of my life in out of the way places like Saudi Arabia, and Aiken. I've always been the minority and I know that feeling when someone discriminates. Coming to my current home it's interesting to talk with people and to have to battle the ignorance of discrimination. Try teaching kids that differences are beautiful, especially when they are in the local majority. It's hard, whether your focus is combat religious, racial, intellectual ignorance etc..

    I applaud you on your hard, tiresome, unforgiving work. I'm glad that, in the least, you earned your time, and renewed strong ideals for the things that count in life. Keep it up.

    Kevin Steele

  2. Kevin,

    Thanks for the comments! I'm excited about the e-book too! (Nervous, terrified, doing something new and different!)

    The only way to stamp out discrimination is to face it head on! Thanks again!!