Bottom Line: Volunteer projects over the last two days were a study in contrasts. One very mental, one more physical. Both fulfilling. Seven things that they both got right to make it a good experience for me, the volunteer.
Ecumenical Hunger Program
Yesterday, I stopped by Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto to ask about potential volunteer opportunities for groups. They had an information sheet detailing different options, but they also needed help right now. They were preparing for their monthly food distribution, and needed help splitting the pallets of groceries into boxes for the 80-100 families that would be showing up in a little bit more than an hour. I offered to stick around, and was soon at work packing boxes: 2 large cans of pear halves, 3 smaller ones of peaches, 2 packs of tortillas, 4 smaller cans of apple sauce, 2 pound bags each of rice and pinto beans, a 64-oz bottle of spiced cranberry juice, a half-gallon of milk, a 2 pound bag of pre-washed salad, a watermelon and a cantaloupe. Other groups were packing meats (not sure of all that went into it, but looked to be a dozen eggs, a one-pound pack of hot dogs, a one-pound tube of ground sausage, and 2 1-pound packs of cold cuts (baloney or ham). A third group was packing fruits and vegetables. This being summer in California, there was a nice selection of nectarines, oranges, broccoli, corn, onions and probably more that I didn’t see.
At 5 PM, not only was the distribution done, but the area had been restored to its prior, clean state. Empty boxes were gone. The leftovers were in the food pantry. The tables were taken down and stored, and the parking lot had been swept. It was a remarkable display of efficiency, taking the volunteer efforts of probably a dozen people, some of us first-timers, and getting a large task done in a short time. Staff members Suliana and Jackie deserve credit for getting us all together to get everything done.
Helping with a Grant Application
Monday afternoon, I spent about 2 hours helping out with the final submission of a grant application to the USAID. The Principal Investigators for the submission had put together a nice response to a Request for Proposals, one that could have real impact for students and others in Africa. They needed a fresh set of eyes to help them simplify the writing for people who weren’t already familiar with what they’re proposing. So I helped cut some of the excess verbiage and clarify things a bit. We used Google Docs, with two or three of us editing the same document at the same time, with the shared goal of clarifying it and squeezing the word count down to fit in the allotted number of pages for the proposal. We were all at our own desks, miles apart, just communicating through the edits we were making to the document and the chat window alongside. Yet here again, the process converged and we finished expediently, and had a chance to chat a bit before going our separate ways.
On the face of it, the two experiences were very different: one very physical, the other totally mental; one where I was in the same place with the other volunteers, and even got to help the beneficiaries directly (e.g., loading a car) whereas in the other I interacted only through typing; in one case, just about anyone could have done what I was doing, in the other, it required a high skill level of writing, background knowledge, and a understanding of an “academic setting.” But at the end of the day, each of the experiences was very satisfying. I attribute that to:
- There was a clear objective.
- We managed to finish what we set out to accomplish. (It was a manageable amount of work.)
- The project leaders were “in it together” with us, helping out in a visible way.
- The project leaders were appreciative. Very much so.
- There was a sense of teamwork: we could see what other people were doing, how we were all contributing toward the goal.
- We had the tools we needed for the job: we were able to use our time effectively, and weren’t forced to wait around much.
- There was space for a little off-task fun. Kidding around a bit, cracking jokes in the chat window, taking a group break to re-hydrate. We were definitely driven to finish things quickly, but it wasn’t “all work, all the time”.
Ultimately, I found the grant writing more fulfilling–the ability to use my skills in a way that not many others could do, plus the chance that it would have a very large impact (helping to win a grant that I thought will make a positive change, in a more enduring way). But I was happy with my EHP experience, too. By following the seven tips above, each project made me feel like a valuable and valued volunteer.