Thursday, October 29, 2009

How I Became a Volunteer

My name is Ellen. I am 47 years old. And I volunteer...a lot! In 1997, after 13 years in fashion merchandising and retail management, I hung up my pumps and took on the role of stay-at-home mom. Immediately, I began searching for a job description that was more impressive. "Stay-at-home mom" sounded so banal but more importantly it did not give me any idea of what I was supposed to do all day long. I was used to tangible results at the end of each day to measure my productivity. So, how was I supposed to evaluate myself now: how many diapers I changed each day? how many loads of laundry I finished? how many types of body fluid stains remained in my carpets? I briefly considered the whole Martha Stewart/domestic diva path but had to remind myself that my German "get a bigger hammer" mindset and my naturally brown thumb were really not conducive to success in this pursuit. I struggled to come up with meaningful criteria that would provide me with some goals and structure to my new daily routines.
I dabbled in some classroom assistance when Emily was in first and second grade. I even donned a toga and acted out scenes from Roman history. But then we moved and I found myself once again in a new community feeling disconnected and a bit bored. I must have been giving off some kind of scent because the parents -- okay, the moms -- who ran our elementary school parent club soon sniffed me out. It began innocently enough: would I be willing to run the school t-shirt program. With my retail background, it seemed very manageable, so I said yes. Then, Joey's kindergarten teacher asked each parent to volunteer once a week in the classroom to help out during "stations". I was reluctant at first as Jack was only a year old and I was not sure I wanted to relinquish precious nanny-time to spend it with 34 kindergartners. Mrs. Roy gently but firmly assured me that "yes" was the only answer she would accept. And so began my true foray into the black hole of need known as volunteering.
What originated from a sense of obligation and personal discontent quickly evolved into a true calling. Over the past 12 years, I have discovered that working in my kids' classrooms is a fantastic way to get to know the teachers and students as well as the other parents. I encountered a wonderful world of (mostly) women like me, both in and out of the work force, who wanted to be a presence in their children's school lives and give back to the community. I developed life long friendships with amazingly talented people. We created a wide support network -- it really does take a village -- and assisted one another with carpools, parenting dilemmas, school challenges, family management and more than the occasional glass of wine. While I had been looking for this kind of dynamic for myself, I was surprised to find how much it benefitted my children as well. My understanding of their school environment helped me develop a home and extra curricular structure that better supported their personal growth and achievement. My interaction with the teachers and the school administration provided for an appreciation of what school could and could not do for my kids; when I needed to push and when I needed to pull. And, unexpectedly, my volunteering became an example of how giving back not only adds value to a community but to our role within it.
With our subsequent moves, I have looked to recreate this sense of community for my family by throwing myself again into the pool of academic activism. It is different each time as my kids get older, are no longer all in the same school and develop independent interests and activities. And as Jack, my youngest, is in his last year of elementary school, my career in the classroom is wrapping up. But I am hooked and plan to remain active in K-12 public education although I find my focus is shifting to a more macro orientation. Now, if only I could get paid...In hindsight, it would appear that I should have made a career in education and volunteered in retail.

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