Why I'm Hard on VolunteersJan 20, 2021
The brisk air nipped Ava’s cheeks as she jumped out from her foster mom’s car yelling, “Ms. Sandy, I’m here!”
I smiled and walked over to Ava. “Whoa look at you, nice coat. It’s chilly out today isn’t it?”
“Um, yea....where is Ms. Sandy?” Ava asked concerned
“You’re a couple minutes early, do you want to swing on the swing while we wait for her?” I asked trying to reassure and redirect Ava.
“No, we had something planned. I’ll just sit here until she comes.” Ava asserted.
I started up a conversation with her foster mom, but I was a bit annoyed. It was only two minutes before session start time and Sandy, Ava’s mentor, knew she was supposed to be at the barn 15 minutes prior to session. I had gone over in mentor training how important it was for kids to see that you value your special time with them, that you were prepared and ready to start as soon as they arrived. I knew I would have to reiterate this with Sandy when she finally showed up.
As the clock ticked past session start time with no sign of Sandy, my anxiety began to rise. It was less than a month ago that I had sat with Ava’s foster mom to do an intake assessment. As I learned about Ava’s multiple foster homes, abandonments and trauma history, I assured her foster mom that we were trauma informed and that the structure of our program (weekly, for 10 months) was to ensure participants felt as though their time at Stable Moments was something they could rely on. STABLE moments for goodness sake…….and Sandy not showing up was working against everything we aimed to provide here.
If we aren’t stable, if we don’t show up, we are causing more trauma...PERIOD. We might as well close our doors.
So Sandy never showed. Ava was disappointed, but sadly all too ready to just move on, because guess what? These kids are good at abandonment. They’re used to it. Why would anyone actually show up every week like they said they would? This, after all, wasn’t quite as bad as the feelings Ava had week after week when she sat in a visitation room at Department of Children and Families waiting for her birth mom to show. Every week her mom promised she was coming, but most of the time “something came up.” Something that said to Ava, you aren’t worth my time. Ava knows what it is to feel worthless so she rolls with the punches.
One of the most common questions I get from program directors wanting to start a Stable Moments program is “Does it have to be 10 months?” and when I dig into the reason behind that question it almost always comes from a belief that we simply can’t rely on volunteers to give an hour a week for 10 months. This is a blatant example of thoughts are things and perception is reality. Shifting this reality is my first job when this question is asked.
We CAN and WILL get amazing, committed, reliable volunteers but it first starts with us. If you believe you are asking too much of someone, they will mirror that belief. You will attract people that will come when they can, leave you in the lurch and actually cause harm to those you have set out to serve. Here’s the deal. I wasn’t always a hard ass on time commitments and expressing the importance of reliability, but I vowed as I sat in that session with Ava, to NEVER do this to a kid again. Not here. Kids deserve stability.
My perspective is that an hour per week isn’t asking much at all. We are asking people to give moments. Moments where children believe they are valued, where they can start to trust and where they start to believe they matter. I believe in a community that shows up and honestly if you don't believe your community can show up, then you have no business offering programming to this population of traumatized and abandoned children.
So tell volunteers this story. Tell them that we only exist to show up for kids, that kids will take it personally and that you only want them to commit if they can truly do just that. Give them other opportunities to remain involved if they can’t make the commitment. That is okay too. Of course you will get people who get sick or have a once a year vacation planned. You can make mindful arrangements for those sessions. But overall, if we say we’re going to be there, we need to be there.
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