Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Volunteerism



I’ve been volunteering at Katie’s school for several months now. I love it. I’m the reading helper. The kids take home a book each day to practice reading it. The next morning they read it to one of the reading helpers, who counts how many, if any, words the kids needed help reading and records it on a chart to determine if they’re ready to go up a level.

I’m astounded at how fast kids memorize words. The other day Katie brought home a book called “The Woodsy Band Jam.” The title alone is challenging for a five year old, but then one of the woodland creatures in the band plays a fife. A what? I know. I’m a forty-one year old librarian. A professional reader. And I had never seen the word before.

“I guess it’s called a \ˈfīf\,” I said. “If you take the ‘f’ off and replace it with a ‘w’ it would be ‘wife.’”

Katie’s face beamed as we looked at my computer screen to double check the pronunciation.

What a great program my daughter’s school has. I didn’t even begin to learn how to read until first grade. Now my five-year-old’s vocabulary is about to surpass mine.

If it weren’t for volunteers, this reading program would not run as smoothly as it does. In fact, being inside the classroom for an hour and a half each week shows me how incredibly busy the teacher is with her twenty-two young spongy minds. If the other four reading helpers and I weren’t able to take this small amount of time away from our daily lives to help, I bet the program would dissolve.

It sounds like I’m tooting my own fife, but really I mean to toot volunteerism’s fife. I can’t tell you how good it feels each week when I sit with those shining faces and listen to them sound out words like “woodsy”. I always leave my volunteer post, my own face beaming, my heart beating a little faster, my face flushed.

It gets me thinking: more people should volunteer. I’m new to the idea. I always worked full time and didn’t want to spend what little free time I had working somewhere without pay. But since last July when I was able to cut my hours from forty a week to twenty-four a week, I don’t feel so greedy with my free time.

I’ve had good role models. When I was a kid my mom volunteered for the YMCA teaching kids with special needs how to swim. Now, in her seventies, mom volunteers at a Catholic Charities thrift store. My brother volunteers for the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. My sister visits lonely residents at nursing homes and volunteers for all kinds of duties through her church. My other sister organizes fund raisers for various local causes and is rarely caught on the street without a protein bar in her bag in case someone sparechanges her.

Most of the volunteers I come in contact with at the library are elderly folks. For a long time, other than the do-gooders in my immediate family, I associated volunteers with the Greatest Generation. Most of my younger friends didn’t volunteer. So I worried maybe volunteering would die out when the GG volunteers died out.

But then I read this report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that shows 26.8% of Americans, many of them middle-aged and not just the elderly, volunteered somewhere last year. That’s better than I expected. We can still do better. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make volunteering cool?

What are some good ways to encourage more of our population to volunteer? Should we create a reality TV show called “Volunteers”? Follow church nursery volunteers and animal shelter volunteers and volunteer search parties as they perform their heroic duties each week on cable. That might pique people’s interest. But I’m not sure sitting on our behinds watching a TV show about volunteering is the same thing as getting off the couch and out there doing something to make this world a better place.

Should we encourage individuals and corporations to volunteer for a community organization if they receive government assistance? I don’t think it should be required, but it wouldn’t hurt to encourage it. Volunteerism should remain voluntary. The government should never become a slave master. Plus, there’s much more pride in the work done if it’s done by someone who wants to be doing it.

What ideas do you have to encourage more Americans to volunteer?