Do you remember volunteering in high school?
A cheery voice on the intercom would direct any interested parties to the bulletin board, where you’d sign up and grab a permission slip to sing Christmas carols at the nursing home, or to sort cans at the hunger center, or to serve food at the homeless shelter for two hours on a Saturday. Your mom would drive you, or you’d carpool, or the school van would take you. Someone would sign off on your service hours before you left.
Now, more than a few years after high school, my “volunteering” looks a little different. Gone are the neatly defined hours and locations. Gone are the tidy roles: You will help decorate cookies on the Alzheimer’s wing for an hour, then you will return residents to their rooms. No more permission slips (thank goodness). All of that is gone.
Instead, I find myself on Tuesday nights with five to 25 people of varying ages in my home, watching Jane the Virgin and eating flamin’ hot Cheetos. Or on Friday mornings at the post office, trying to translate “money order” into Spanish with limited success. It’s a far cry from what I used to envision as service, but I’ve never served in a more real way.
Let me explain.
Two years ago, my husband Dan and I were at the community pool: warm sun on our shoulders, kids splashing in the water, lifeguards admonishing rowdy children, the lingering smell of sunblock and chlorine. Then suddenly the lifeguard got louder, more insistent and annoyed.
“Hey! STOP that! It’s dangerous!” Heads turned. The offenders were a group of Latina preschoolers who continued their fracas, not understanding that they were the lifeguard’s targets. Two nervous mothers hurried forward, ignoring the lifeguard, motioning to their preschoolers to get out of the pool to leave. Parents watched from their deck chairs.
Dan helped the lifeguard translate. The kids got the message and went back to playing, and the nervous moms went back to their chairs looking relieved. Dan and I walked over to them and chatted about their kids, the pool, and then, since we were new in the neighborhood, we casually asked how long they’d lived here. It turns out that they had been here for a decade but still knew very little English. Almost without thinking, I pulled out my phone and we exchanged numbers. If you ever need anything, I said, call us. My husband and I are English teachers.
Honestly, I didn’t expect much to come of that. Probably hundreds of times in my life I’ve said, Call me if you need anything after the surgery. Call me if I can do anything for you after the baby. Let me know if you need anything. People rarely do, of course.
A week later, though, I looked in mild disbelief at a text. Ana, one of the moms, was asking about English lessons. Did we give them? Did we know of any in the area? I didn’t know of any but I said we’d be glad to do some English lessons for her and anyone who’d like to come.
Two years later, this weekly clase de inglés has morphed into a wonderful, chaotic, exhausting, joy-filled community. This is what adult volunteering looks like. It is nothing like the service projects I used to do in high school.
The time? Tuesday nights, from 8:15 until whenever we get tired or the kids’ homework is done. Or sometimes also Saturday afternoon. Or maybe Friday. But always on Tuesday.
The place? Our house, the BMV, the library, the post office, Ana’s apartment, the party room at the apartment complex, a nearby parish, the WIC food program office.
The roles? Everything. We’re neighbors. Ana has hosted us at her apartment for birthday parties. I visited her newborn the day she came home. She brought my new baby gifts. We’ve taken her to doctor’s appointments. She has helped clean my kitchen. We have translated her daughter’s school paperwork. She has introduced us to dozens of people from Mexico and El Salvador and Ecuador and Guatemala. An ever-changing group of these new friends (with Ana as the constant) make up our clases de inglés.
This class? It does not look like your high school language classes. This class consists of: helping with subtraction homework, reading various kids’ books, babysitting kids smashing play-doh, filling out job applications, watching Jane the Virgin, telephoning ICE detention centers in Texas, getting library cards, and occasionally some actual English lessons. We’ve helped enroll their kids in school, transfer their cars’ titles at the BMV, and apply for their kids’ passports. They’ve paraded with our children around their parish at the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, fed us tamales and enchiladas and pupusas, endured our broken (or in my case, sometimes incomprehensible) Spanish.
Letting go of the defined boundaries of “volunteering” has freed me and Dan and our family up to experience the life-giving reciprocity of true service. It makes us feel our worth when another person asks for our help or expertise. It lets us feel generous. And when we ask others for their help, it makes us feel our interdependence and our humanness. By leaning on each other, we build something.
Our small community was forged when we all took steps toward each other: translating at the pool, a text with a question, a party invitation, a meal, a lesson, a hug, a favor. We’re all capable of this in our own communities. And how much goodness is in these steps! Doors are opened, lives are joined, connections are deepened. Babies are rocked and food is eaten and jokes are made and books are read. No one needs saving and no one is a savior. We’re on even, imperfect ground. And we don’t have to remember to get our service hours sheet signed.