Tuesday, March 1, 2011

For what it's worth...

Well, I just got back from my first morning volunteering someplace new. It is not vital for this post to name names, and I do plan to go back next week. I also realize that three out of four of my volunteer gigs have had pretty much the same vibe, so this story is not terribly unique. However, I find the tale amusing. As usual, I will start at the beginning (and will also most likely include irrelevant details...my personal flair if you will)...

Making contact:
In my never ending quest to find peace in an organized countertop, I found myself purging a stack of random papers a few weeks ago. I made the eye appointment and orthodontist appointments (because that was two pieces of paper I could throw out, not because I was terribly concerned about eyes or teeth). I came across the ad I had ripped out of a magazine soliciting volunteers for a local organization. I suppose I could have just thrown it out, but decided to call the number listed for additional information. In response to my query, I was asked if I had checked the website. I apologized (yeah, I may never know why that is my first line, but it was), and said that I got the number from an ad. As the woman was rushing off the phone I realized that the website was not on the advertisement I was holding. I guessed (incorrectly) at the web address, and she quickly rattled off the proper one. I read through a lot of information about the organization including, volunteer positions, brief history, board of directors, and volunteers needed...and then noticed that the information was last updated during the summer of 2010. I used the link provided to email a message about my interest in volunteering for them.

Two days later I received acknowledgment of my email. Two days later I got a phonecall, from a different person than I was told I would hear from, to set up an interview. It was a Monday afternoon, and this woman indicated that she was already booked for the week. At this point I wondered if I should set out to find an organization in more desperate need to get a warm and willing body in their door. After two more days, she was able to rework her schedule, and we met on Thursday. Later that afternoon I was called by the head honcho (read: paid person). Her first question was if I was looking for a job. I was confused as I didn't realize that was an option, but what she was after was whether or not I was seeking employment that would cause me to give up the sought after volunteer position. There was more conversation, and I felt like the person I had interviewed with actually did a decent job of representing me to Honcho (yeah, let's call her that).

Showing my face:
On what turned out to be the wrong day (but there actually would not have been a right day, since I was not on her calendar), I showed up to see exactly what I'd be doing and to fill out an actual application. I stood for five minutes in the entryway, with neither of the two women who had glanced at me asking if I needed anything (as if maybe I just liked to wander into public places to dry my boots on the rug). I identified Honcho and told her who I was, and knew by the blank stare I was getting that I needed to come up with more information. She told me that if I could tell her a little something about myself, I might ring a bell. I went with my catering and other food service background (but was thinking-Oh, I write this blog, and I have a pretty good feeling that you are going to make decent fodder for it). She remarked that I was the "good candidate", and I would not have been at all surprised if she had said something near the complete opposite to some other poor soul. I was more prepared for the "Are you looking for a job?" question this time.

There was nobody there for me to help/shadow that day, so I offered to leave (for fear of what might have been asked of me otherwise). I told her would fill out the application she mentioned having me do, then I realized she had started looking for my application, so I restated that I did not have one. We decided on the day I would come for a little while to help out the usual Tuesday person, and to see how things worked. I asked about hats, and was told hair should be up and they provided visors.

First day (finally, I know, but some of that information seemed relevant):
Armed with a bobby pin and a hair elastic I got out of my car, slightly disappointed that I didn't have my ball cap, but knowing I'd have been more disappointed having to forsake it for a volunteer issued visor. I stood again for five minutes while Honcho and the same other woman as before basically ignored me. It was during this time that I realized that every single other person in the place had a ball cap (of their own desire) on. It was kind of charming actually as I am fairly sure all but three people were females over seventy.

Honcho gave me aslightly less blank stare than before, so I introduced myself. She said she knew who I was (but maybe wasn't sure WHY I was?). She told me I'd be making cupcakes that some women from a retirement community would be coming to decorate. I was shown the hairnet stash, handed three big boxes of cupcake mix, outfitted with some ill-fitting plastic gloves, and brought to my very own work space. I was told that I couldn't use the great big industrial mixer, but could use hand beaters and just make half a box at a time because no really big bowls were available. I asked about scoops for filling the pans and was told there weren't any, so I should just put the batter into a big measuring cup for pouring purposes. I did not sense a warm fuzzy feeling from anyone else in the kitchen, so was not completely surprised when Honcho's announcement "Everyone, this is Andrea. Feel free to come introduce yourselves" was not met with so much as a glance in my direction. She told me, quietly, that as I could see it was mostly old women working there and they were cranky. She said if I went in their space, they would not like it, and that I should try not to take offense. The follow up comment was "I guess what I'm saying is that I don't want to lose you." Oh, well that explained all interactions up to this point, yes, clearly she was trying to give me warm fuzzies! Then Honcho just sort of left me.

I could've blown up the place when I turned the oven on incorrectly, but rectified that situation soon enough. I was also told that the ovens I was being relegated to, due to the meals cooking in the convection ovens, were lousy and didn't cook well. I just kept wondering when the person I was supposed to be shadowing was due to arrive.

A lovely woman appeared, who I recognized, as my children have basically been following hers through school since they were three. Phew...she was the one I was supposed to be helping. The first thing she did was get me the ice cream scooper that they use for batter. Then she asked was why I didn't have the better gloves like everyone else (and promptly got me some). Next, she wondered why I was using the hand mixer instead of the huge one, and she got someone to get that rectified for us. Seriously, the mixer looked smaller than the one from my daughter's play kitchen. At some point it came up that we needed two hundred cupcakes...200!!!! I was working through a variety of cake batter consistencies...on the verge of panic for the first hour. I broke one in half to test as to flavor and doneness...yup, it was a white cupcake from a box. Then I sort of settled into a slightly organized groove where I was able to accept the fact that the cupcakes were sticking to the top of the pan, weren't browning evenly, and lacked consistent shape and sizing. I even managed to breathe when Honcho came to check on our progress. (As it turned out, cupcakes were my domain, as the person I was to be helping had been charged with making frosting and the chicken casserole.) I also noticed that my proximity to the woman I was working with made me more approachable somehow. She introduced me to anyone who walked by, and each person met her with a smile and some spark of conversation.

After three hours of baking merriment, I was able to put the last batch of cupcakes in the "better" convection oven. They cooked in half the time and peaked, instead of spreading out over the pan. I moved the 199 (of course) cupcakes to safety on another table, and tried to pitch in helping the other folks who were trying to be done for the day (as it was already thirty minutes past when the chicken casserole woman said she needed to leave by). Honcho walked through a couple of times offering no actual assistance to get things wrapped up.

Then I heard Honcho's voice bellow "Something is burning!" I was not concerned as my stuff was done..."Cupcakes!" I heard. Yes, when we shifted to the convection oven, I left two pans of cupcakes in the second oven after turning it off. Oops! I saw that she had taken them out of the oven, so I stayed in back. She came by to tell me that the smell had been getting worse and worse (as her office is right near the ovens). I told her at least I had 199. That fact was not ever really acknowledged. Three of us finished the chicken casserole (seven trays of it), and shared many laughs and a strong sense of teamwork. Honcho did come back out while we were picking up and asked me if I was a clean person...um, yes. Then she told me a couple examples of times when people were not...ok, noted. She mentioned something about cooking something different next time I came. Then she was gone again.

The other volunteers were so kind about whether I'd be back next week and how much I'd done on my first day. The woman who I'd been with all morning was so incredibly grateful for the help she found me to be, and thanked me several times for coming. I heard nothing else from Honcho. No thank yous, no how was it, no can you come back next week...nada.

After thoughts:
As I said, I do not think this almost ungrateful feeling from the paid folk is unique to this organization. I've felt it from the Girl Scouts and from a few non-classroom teachers at the elementary schools. I called my husband and asked him if the organization he currently does his volunteering for would like to hire me as a consultant for a session in how to better capture and maintain volunteers. (I told him I obviously didn't want to VOLUNTEER to do it!) I just don't understand how one paid person, in a room of over fifteen volunteers, feels entitled to treat folks like subordinates...folks who have no reason not to walk right out the door. Is it because:

-the actual employee is used to being with fellow employees/professionals?
-a person who volunteers is perceived as having nothing better to do?
-a volunteer's time is somehow less precious because they have more of it?
-volunteers have "sucker" written on their foreheads for the mere fact that they are volunteering to begin with?

It was a big struggle for me back in the days when I had to sit through training meetings for Girl Scouts, conducted by women who had never been troop leaders. There are a lot of things that might make sense in a book, but not when ten seven-year-olds are looking at you! I do not know Honcho's background. I am not sure how much, if any, time she has spent all hair netted and aproned up. She really was harmless, and as I said, I will go back next Tuesday (and not just because I think she might be good for the blog). BUT I WILL BRING A BASEBALL HAT...


  1. I know I need to comment but have no other words than Good Luck.

  2. Does it help to note that any kind of earning gap, whether it's paid vs. volunteer or executive vs. entry level signifies the right to act like an entitled jerk to many, many folks? It's pretty rare that I run into someone above my paygrade that I actually find admirable, helpful and in touch with what actually goes on in the office they're running.

    What's even more absurd is that I find many of these entitled folks spend an inordinate amount of their working hours in a defensive position. Defending their jobs and making proclamations about how important they are seems to be of greater value than actually doing much work.

    Regardless of the case, anyone with a clue knows which people really make a business run ;)

    Good for you for sticking it out.