March 9, 2015 by Jean
Volunteer work has long been part of my plan for retirement; making a contribution to some kind of larger enterprise is an important part of my sense of self. When I thought about this before I retired, I imagined some kind of regular (maybe once a week) volunteer activity that would make such a contribution while also drawing on my skills, helping to structure my week, and getting me out of the house to meet and interact with people. I didn’t give much thought to how I would find such a volunteer opportunity, and that has been more complicated than I expected.
My first attempt at volunteering was at a nearby food bank. I contacted the volunteer coordinator for the food bank by email and went in to meet with her and to tour the facility. It turned out that the food bank is a big warehouse and the jobs they need volunteers to do are mostly warehouse jobs. I found one such job that appealed to me, helping to pack bags of food that are distributed monthly to low-income senior citizens in Maine, and I made a commitment to go in every Wednesday to work on this. The packing operation is set up like an assembly line, with different stations for different parts of the process. I found I enjoyed the work best when I was working alone or with one or two other people, could work at my own pace, and could switch around among the various stations. This was making a contribution, and it used my skills for working carefully and methodically. But it wasn’t a place for social interaction, and the work sometimes required bending and lifting that aggravated problems with my lower back. The more volunteers were working on the senior food line, the faster the pace and the more like an assembly line it became, and the more unpleasant I found it. Some weeks, I would arrive to find that the senior commodity line was not running, and the alternative job I was asked to do was one I found both stressful and unpleasant. Last week, I made the decision that this is not working out for me and let the food bank know that I plan to stop coming in.
Sometime during the months when I was volunteering at the food bank, a booklet arrived in the mail detailing the winter offerings for adult education in my local school district. One of these was a one-evening orientation to volunteering in the schools, and on impulse, I registered for it. It would be fun to learn about what kinds of volunteer opportunities existed in the local schools. It seemed likely that I could draw on my experience and skills as an educator to make a contribution there, and it would be a great way to get better integrated into my community. Unfortunately, the session turned out not to be an orientation to volunteer opportunities in the schools, but an orientation to school district policies (e.g., privacy and security policies) for volunteers. The intended audience was parents and grandparents of children in the elementary schools who already knew what volunteers did in the schools and who wanted to get certified so that they could do things like accompany children on field trips. Another false start. (Although I still may contact the local high school to see if there is something I can do for them next year.)
Recently, another volunteer opportunity that I had never considered presented itself to me. When I signed up as a member of the local senior college (affiliated with OLLI – the Ohser Lifelong Learning Institute) and registered for a spring course, the catalog included a call for volunteers to serve on committees. The senior college is an all-volunteer organization, and I very much value the services they provide. This would be an opportunity to support that effort by doing some of the scut work that decades of experience on academic committees has certainly prepared me for. I can particularly imagine myself making a contribution to the registration committee (which includes doing data entry for the course registration process) or the curriculum committee (which evaluates course proposals and develops the curriculum). I’m also thinking about proposing a course to teach there in the fall, a volunteer activity that would certainly draw on my skills. I’ve just put my volunteer form for the senior college in the mail today, so it remains to be seen if this will work out.
I’m beginning to think that finding the right volunteer work might be like finding love; you need to be prepared to kiss a few volunteer frogs before you find your prince.