I maintain that humans are by nature generous. We like to give. We like the satisfaction of sharing what we have (except, in my case, for a few unsavory incidents back in preschool). When we observe behavior in ourselves or others that seems to contradict this, I would suggest that the culprit is nothing more than fear.
Not that these aren't scary times, economically speaking. Madison has managed to keep its rate of unemployment significantly below the national average, and yet we all know someone who has lost a job or who has been looking for months with no luck. Plenty of us are hanging onto jobs we don't like or where our skills remain largely unused because we need the health insurance or can't find anything better in the current market.
Still, it bothers most of us to hear, as we did last month from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, that donations to America's charities are down by an average of 11%, a devastating decline in a time when need is high and growing. But we do want to give, and not just that little bit of extra change for the Salvation Army buckets at Christmas. Fortunately, we all have something to give besides money.
My father, raised poor during the Depression in Chicago, was a stickler about kids doing volunteer work. He didn't bother with the rhetoric about giving back. If we didn't find a paying job, he saw to it we weren't left with a lot of idle time on our hands. My first volunteer job was as a candy striper at Milwaukee Children's Hospital. I delivered flowers and mail, worked in the gift shop and, on my best days, got to read books or play games with the kids. I remember most of high school about as happily as an oil slick on the garage floor, but those afternoons of reading and play lifted me out of my teenage gloom. I felt useful, respected. I could see that in small but significant ways I made a difference.
I've done a lot of volunteering since high school, with varying returns on my investment. Basic jobs like stuffing envelopes or making calls on behalf of local charities, candidates or political causes have had certain advantages. Usually time-limited, these tasks are often performed in the company of other, like-minded volunteers, offering the potential for conversation, information-sharing, even friendship, along with the satisfaction of helping to further the cause of something you care about.
Sometimes the volunteer cause finds you, as when my daughter became old enough to join a Brownie troop, only to find there was no troop to join. Now, I had never harbored ambitions of leading a Girl Scout troop, but another mother was willing to take the lead, if only she had a volunteer to assist. I recall the quiet in that room as we all waited for someone to come forward. Needless to say, I caved, and now, years later, I remember each troop member with perfect clarity and great fondness. I didn't do much besides show up, but I could tell it mattered that I did. Recently another mother shared a scrapbook from those Girl Scout days, pictures from all our projects and cookouts, our cleanup days in the park, the overnight campouts. I'm a little amazed by how much we actually accomplished, and how the girls look so pleased with themselves in almost every shot.
I'm always impressed to hear the stories of young adults who've traveled all over the country, performing a wide array of jobs with AmeriCorps. Ditto with friends who have swung hammers with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans, or spent a couple of weeks each summer helping to paint houses in poverty-stricken areas of South Dakota. Being somewhat less adventurous, I've kept my volunteering closer to home.
I was perhaps a little nave when I volunteered for the board of my neighborhood association back in the '80s. I thought I was signing up to help revise the telephone directory, but soon enough found myself in charge of one of the largest Fourth of July celebrations in the city, complete with parade, children's games, beer tent, baseball tournament and fireworks display. Sure, it was sometimes nerve-wracking to manage scores of volunteers (not without help, mind you), juggle the city permits and insurances, make sure the accounting was all up to snuff. I'd always had a small talent for organization, but by July 5 I'd developed some serious organizing muscles, which have paid off in both the salaried and volunteer jobs I've held since.
Of course, community associations have many smaller jobs for members with less time or ambition. I've worked on newsletters, done bookkeeping, hosted parties, made phone calls and delivered leaflets. I'll admit that I like being on top of all the neighborhood news, but there is also a lot of reassurance in getting to know who your neighbors are and working side-by-side with them on projects that, whether small- or large-scale, affect your quality of life.
During my brief semester as an education major, I took a volunteer job tutoring math at a Madison middle school that turned out to be the bright spot of my week during that period. It felt a little like working a puzzle, figuring out different ways to explain a concept until my tutee would look up with that shy grin of conquest.
For years I'd been meaning to get back to tutoring in the schools, and finally this summer I filled out the convenient application form on the Madison Metropolitan School District website. It took about six weeks before I was contacted to do literacy tutoring at an elementary school. I completed a few hours of extremely helpful training before I was assigned a couple of fourth-graders who do me the honor each week of showing excitement for the materials I bring in for us to read together. One of my students is easy in that he shows quickly what he likes and doesn't. We've already figured out how to make fun out of the work of reading.
My other student is trickier, and I find myself thinking about her during the week, mulling what stories or books might tempt her. It makes me happy, recognizing that very little about helping a kid learn to like reading itself feels like work.
The point being, whether or not you have money to spare at the moment, you don't need to cheat yourself out of the experience of giving. You could end up feeling happier, less alone, more useful - all that stuff psychologists tell us we need. Just as likely, you'll end up getting something you never expected or even knew you were looking for.