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Pauline Lerner

Volunteer grumbles

July 13, 2006 at 7:30 AM


I enjoy the rewarding feeling of helping make good things happen, especially underfunded things like music or education, so I do a lot of volunteer work. I always hope to enjoy the camaraderie of fellow idealists, but it doesn’t always turn out quite that way. Ego trips and turf battles occur in volunteer work, just as they do in the daily grind of wage earning.

I started doing volunteer work at an annual event four years ago, I didn’t feel entirely welcome. Everyone seemed to have their territory staked out, and most of them didn’t want to be threatened. When I asked what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to do it, I was told to see what needed to be done and do it myself. After all, if someone had told me the correct way to do something, I might have done it correctly and deprived them of the fun of telling me that I had done it wrong. No matter what I did, people frequently told that I was doing it at the wrong time, in the wrong place, or in the wrong way. The work was actually not very complex or sophisticated. We served food and drink at a reception for some artists. I cut up vegetables into pieces too big or too small. I put food out to eat too early or too late in the evening. I diluted the lemonade too much or too little. I put chips on a black plate instead of a white one. I set the brownies down on the table too close or too far from the cookies. I shoveled ice from the wrong ice chest. This year I began to feel accepted, but the feeling was drowned in a new flood of criticism.

What bothers me the most is the “sidewalk supervisors.” People sit around doing nothing and then criticize me for taking breaks when there is no work to do. We are often told that most Americans have too sedentary a lifestyle, and these volunteer workers are, frankly, physically lazy. Most of them sit still most of the time while a few of us run back and forth from the ice box, to the cutting board, to the table, to the trash cans, to wherever there is work to do. I have some issues with my health. I am recovering from foot injuries which prevented me from standing and walking more than a few steps just a month ago. Yet people kept telling me to go somewhere else and do something else so they can sit down. I’m troubled with asthma, and I often get weak and dizzy in warm, humid conditions, for example, in food kitchens. I also get short of breath sometimes in rooms with crowds because people have cigarette smoke on their clothes or perfume, cologne, or scented cosmetics on their skin or hair. Now and then I would go out to the lobby, where it’s cooler and less crowded, and just sit still for a while and breathe and then go back into the party room or kitchen to do more work. At one point, when I felt ill, I ran to the ladies room, only to find my way blocked by screaming, laughing partygoers who told me not to walk in because they were taking photographs. By midnight, I felt quite sick, but I couldn’t go home because I don’t have a car and the buses don’t run that late at night, so I waited in the lobby and tried to nap while I held an ice pack on my head. On one of my sallies back into the party room, I saw the most sedentary and critical volunteer crawl under the serving table and pull the table cloth behind her. I thought she was looking for something that had fallen there. Later, I saw her do the same thing under one of the other tables and stay there. She was just taking breaks that way. She certainly didn’t get up and wash her hands before handling food again.

I have too much self control. When people snap at me, I don’t snap back. They see me as a wimp and just b…. at me more. Why do I do this? It’s not good for my health. I could just take the $50 I spend on public transportation for 10 days and write a check to the organization. I keep reminding myself that I do have fun there. I don’t have much of a social life, and I enjoy the parties. I like hearing the music and talking to the musicians from other parts of my own country and other countries. I even like talking with some of the other volunteers.

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