Here’s an example of why I sometimes have trouble admiring people who volunteer on Thanksgiving and Christmas at organizations like soup kitchens. I overheard a woman explain her intentions by saying, “My son is going to his girlfriend’s family, so we might as well.” In other words, she and her husband are volunteering because they have nothing better to do.
Most soup kitchens don’t need volunteers on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Lots of people volunteer on those days. Since the commitment is minimal, it’s actually not that much effort, and it sounds so good when you mention it at holiday cocktail parties.
Soup kitchens—and many other kinds of organizations that function year-round and depend on volunteers—like suicide prevention hotlines, homeless shelters, hospital gift shop clerks, and so on—need volunteers every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some are desperate for qualified helpers. You want to impress me at a cocktail party, tell me about that kind of volunteer effort.
I worked on a 24-hour suicide prevention/crisis intervention hotline for more than seven years, and I wish I could still do it, but I can’t. I can’t do it because I work two full-time jobs and volunteer in two additional roles. My jobs include my “day job” as an instructional designer/corporate trainer and my “other job” as a novelist. My volunteer commitments include serving as the president of Mystery Writers of America/New York Chapter and the chair of the Wolfe Pack’s literary awards. (We’re the folks that give out the Nero and the new Black Orchid Novella award.) I barely have time to sleep.
I confess to daydreaming about the day that my career as a novelist takes off so that I can cut back on day job work (which, by the way, I’m fortunate enough to love). One of the first things I’ll do is volunteer at the suicide prevention hotline, or a similar organization, again.
The hotline I volunteered for was humanistic, non-religious, non-therapeutic, and non-intervention-based. I loved my work there. We volunteers fielded more than 45,000 calls a year from our fellow citizens. To qualify for work on the hotline, I had to complete a 13-week certificate training program. Most of the training focused on communications. To stay “Active,” I had to fulfill a once/week commitment of four to five hours, plus a monthly overnight. A commitment like that is different from serving soup once or twice a year.
America has a very high rate of volunteerism, and I honor everyone who donates time. That said, and perhaps you find me cynical, but I admire people who volunteer all year round more than those who only volunteer when it’s convenient and easy.
As Dr. M. Scott Peck once wrote, “Love equals time spent.”