Let me preface this post by saying that no service project that aims to truly help people is bad — unless by “helping people” that means helping self-interested parties to wider profit margins by taking advantage of free labor from naive volunteers that work like dogs. That sort of service project is not just bad, it’s ugly.
I believe they are also sometimes called internships (ba-dum-pum!)
Seriously though, I have found a surefire way to sour any service project: Take the focus off of others and turn it on yourself. I can almost guarantee that thinking about the self makes any service project less fun, less satisfying, more intolerable and more likely to make you lose it in an embarrassing, foaming-at-the-mouth bit of frenzy.
Bjorn and I decided to check out donation sorting. A service organization needed help with organizing goods that were given to them. The goods were either given to the homeless/impoverished or sold in their second-hand stores which cycled the profits from the sales into more programs helping the needy.
I pictured myself holding up items of clothing and commenting on their cuteness and/or tittering over their excessive ugliness with the other volunteers. All would be lightness and gaiety. Oh, the times we would have!
When we showed up at the appointed meeting spot, we were led downstairs into the basement. We were shown through a rabbit-warren of rooms until we reached one that was piled floor-to-ceiling with dusty, stuffed, plastic garbage bags in the front. In one corner, boxes upon boxes overflowed with old shoes.
We were told the shoes needed to be matched, then the pairs separated into three categories: shoes for the needy; shoes that could be sold in the second-hand stores; and shoes that needed to be thrown away. Plus, they needed to be sorted for size and gender.
We were kindly offered drinks and a radio. Then we were left there. By ourselves.
It was eerily quiet. The walls were made of concrete blocks and the one tiny window near the ceiling was taped over with plastic. A lone, naked bulb cast light for the entire room. Although we were underground, the room felt like it was growing warmer.
About 15 minutes later, someone came to check on us. “How are you doing?” she asked.
“It’s sorta hot in here,” I said, steam fogging up my glasses, beads of sweat dripping from my hairline.
“Yeah,” she said sympathetically, “the heating system for the entire building runs through this room.”
The heat got worse. And so did my mood. Sorting shoes is a dirty, nasty, time-consuming process. First, we dumped a box of shoes onto the ground. Then we picked through them, looking for matching pairs. When we found one, and if the insides of the shoes looked OK, we put it in a box of the right size and gender. Labels had to be made by hand and taped onto the boxes. Many times, the shoes did not have their size printed on them, so we went from box to box, comparing them. Within minutes, my hands were filthy and curiously (also sickeningly) sticky.
Bitter thoughts crept in. This is just poor people management, I fumed. Why would they have newbie volunteers doing the worst jobs? They should start new volunteers on easy and fun jobs to get them hooked. Then, once those volunteers are committed, the organization can ask them to take on harder tasks. Better yet, why not have the people they actually pay (we found out a person at the donation center gets paid part-time) do the dirty work??
Longingly, I thought about places that do volunteering right, like the Feather River Hospital in Paradise, Calif. Volunteers there commit to only four hours a week (we were working a six-hour shift in one day), eat for free in the cafeteria, have a volunteer banquet held for them four times a year and some of their volunteer activities seem to require doing little more than smiling at people.
Still ruminating furiously over my perceived ill treatment, I turned an eye on Bjorn. He was humming happily, glancing over at the movie playing on his iPhone and doing much, MUCH less work than me, I thought.
Bjorn seemed to sense the change in the winds. He is an extremely perceptive man, with acute social and emotional intelligence. Plus, he may have noticed that I was glaring at him with enough intensity to rival Superman’s heat vision, mouth in a straight line, breathing heavily through my nose.
He deftly suggested we take our lunch break.
The change in environment and the food (of course, the food) helped to calm me down. Plus, it gave me time to reflect on some things:
1.) Just because all true service projects are good, does not mean that all are a good fit. It is wise to know yourself, your capabilities — and to set boundaries in accordance.
2.) Even with the above being said, you should still try new things and stretch yourself. I would not have learned the above if I had not tried this service project.
3.) Like I said at the beginning, focusing on self — how you’re feeling as opposed to how to help others — will make any service project, no matter how fun, a grizzly chore. After we got back from break, I began envisioning the people that would receive the shoes I had just matched. I imagined the comfort and protection the shoes would give, and how happy the people would be to have them. I started to smile again.
4.) Even if you absolutely hate the project, joy can still be found in a job well done. As I looked at the stacks of boxes around us, the order being created out of the chaos, I felt the warm glow of satisfaction.
The second time we sorted shoes, it went much, much better. It went so well that we are almost done. We probably have only one more shift left before the project is done. I can’t say that I’m going to miss this project, yet I am glad we decided to stick it out.
But I’m pretty sure I’ll never look at a pair of shoes the same again.