Friday, June 11, 2010

The Privilege of Volunteering

by: James Teague

The moment I walked into the Chicago Cultural Center, I knew it was going to be a long day. Through my place of employment, I had been asked to help set up for Common Threads’ World Festival event. It was my day off but it was only a three-hour commitment. I thought why not, I love to volunteer anyway so sure. What was suppose to have been a few hours, became all day and I haven’t missed a World Festival yet! My willingness to stay and help initially had to do with the need; I knew nothing of the organization. But by the next year, not only did I know more, I was ‘in love with it’ and I brought friends that year to lend a helping hand also. I was completely taken by the mission and I was so committed to the women who were committed it to it. Alex, Connie, and Linda, the three women who welcomed me into the folds, embodied the one characteristic that I believe is most important in life – Compassion! I knew I was willing to come back for every festival and/or event for which they needed help. I believed in the mission and them that much. When the offer to volunteer in the afterschool class came, I was a bit hesitant. I had never really been fond of kids and three hours a week on my day off gave me pause. After giving in I realized that as much as I loved the festival, the long day, the ability to see all the hard work pay off before your eyes as the evening unfolds; it couldn’t compare to being in class with the kids.
Ahh, these kids! Who, on paper are defined as disadvantage and underserved, and they may be. But they don’t seem to act like it or show, it’s just their life! After completing my day at the hotel, my ‘real’ job, I headed to my first afterschool class. That first class, that first day, I remember it like it was five minutes ago. Here I am waiting with the chef instructor and the other volunteers and I had no idea what to think, what to expect, what to say, do, feel! I was at a loss and for me that is a lot to say. When the students arrived, their faces lit up like it were Christmas Day and they were in their own toy store. They were excited, exuberant, rambunctious, and eager to get started.
It felt like instantly, but I was hooked, on the kids, on the class, on the value we all would get out of it. They were so hungry for this knowledge and opportunity and we all were just as hungry to share it with them. To watch these kids learn and grow over the 12 weeks of the afterschool classes was simply amazing to me and to be a part of it was nothing short of core changing. These kids, who were loud or funny or shy or scared all learned, some reluctantly all enthusiastically. I had some really great moments with some really great kids and each touched me in their own way. Yet there was one moment that sticks out above all. Picture it, Summer Camp 2009 I was having a rough time in many areas of life, work, home, social, romantic, you name it and it was weighing heavy. I was on my way to camp on a day I just wanted to be in bed with my head covered. One of the former students in the after school class was in summer camp and ran up to me and hugged me and said she missed me which made me smile I admit. But she also insisted that when her group ate, I would come eat with them, even though I was working with another group of kids. I agreed thinking by the time it happens, she would be so wrapped up in class it wouldn’t even matter. How wrong I was! After the food was prepared and the creed had been said, she had the entire class wait while she came to get me and took me to eat with her group. She has no idea what she did for me that day, I was there for them, to teach, to share, even to laugh. But she made me feel so special in those few moments and worrying about my life, in those moments ended.
What I know from personal experience is you do not have to be a product of your environment, cycles can be broken. You see, I would have qualified to be one of these kids in this program, by definition, labeled as underprivileged. Also, what I know from personal experience is it takes is one moment, a moment when someone gives you an opportunity you may not have access to in that day-to-day life. For me, back then, that was Barbara Britton and Greensboro’s Children Theatre, for me to believe that I can break out of that box, be more, do more, want more, have more, and ultimately give more. For over a 1,000 of those kids a year, it can and for some will be Common Threads.
I know I look back now and again and remember just how that first experience opened me up for the next one and the next one and so on. I didn’t know as it happened what in the end it would mean. What I did know in that moment, this is only my first door. Where’s the next?
What I gain is so much more tangible than the 3 hours a week I give up. My being in that class, with those kids in the end is as much for me as it is about them. I called this the PRIVILEDGE of volunteering and it is too, all mine!

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