Friday, April 2, 2010

volunteering = life changing AND not scary!!!

I cannot believe how much my life has changed in less than a week! I finally started volunteering at St. John's (a place that I had not remotely considered until I heard about all of the other BB'ers doing their volunteer hours there and how positive their experiences had been), and it has certainly been an eye-opening experience! I only spent twenty hours there, but they have been some of the most transformative twenty hours of my life.

I made the decision to volunteer Monday morning, not because I really wanted to, but because it was coming down to the wire for our volunteer hours to be submitted, and I only had a week left to do them. I suppose that's not the most ideal mindset to have going into something that is supposed to be done selflessly, but regardless of the reason, I made it there. Arriving half an hour early, I nervously waited outside the front of the building as the patrons steadily gathered around the corner at the entrance to the St. John's. As I waited and consciously tried to calm myself down, I began to imagine what it must be like for the patrons who need to rely on the kitchen for a daily meal. I was wondering outside the building just as the rest of the patrons were, and I began to imagine myself in their position. My thoughts turned to how people passing by on their way to work viewed those who relied on this service, and I wondered how they might be viewing me. Yes, I was standing there in a relatively new coat typing my thoughts into my own phone, so perhaps their first thought would not be that I was homeless/unable to afford a decent meal; but it was extremely interesting and earth shattering to be able to truly put myself in another's position. I was amazing that I hadn't even stepped foot inside the building, and already my world was changing.

Eight o'clock finally came, and I entered the building, mustering up all the confidence and courage I had. Knowing I had to look for Gretchen, I walked in with purpose. So far, things were going really well: I managed to access what I've learning in my therapy session, maintaining a positive mindset. So, once I was acquainted with Gretchen, within about 30 minutes, my decision to put off this part of the BB process could not have been more regretful. Everyone there that Monday morning was in great spirits, diligently working to get that day's meal prepared. One moment in particular that I believe will remain with me always occurred when I had pretty much just arrived. Another volunteer had asked Gretchen how her weekend was. In a disgruntled tone, Gretchen responded: "It was horrible. I can't wait for this place to kick in!" My immediate reaction to her not having had a good weekend was anxious...I tend to feel that way when others are in a bad mood. But then when I heard her proclamation that "this place" had the ability to turn a horrible weekend into something of the past and insignificant, I was extremely moved!

Just BEING in that atmosphere was like no where I'd ever been. Everyone was working together, doing whatever they could, whenever they could, wherever they could. It was the most honest representation of people working together for the greater good, and I was so excited and honored to be a part of it! I was actually sad (although, exhausted!) when it cam time to leave.

Another aspect of volunteering at such an amazing place was the social skills that seemed to come naturally to me. I felt that, in that environment, there was more acceptance, and it allowed me to be me, even if I am awkward and nervous at times. It felt OK to be that way! And feeling OK to be me made those awkward and nervous moments few and far between, or at least less dramatic. Normally, if I made a mistake or said something that I thought was stupid, I would beat myself up it order to feel better (weird, I know). But for whatever reason, be it the atmosphere, the people, some extremely level of positive energy, or a combination of all, my mistakes and "stupid" comments rolled right off my back. A perfect example of this was on Wednesday when Gretchen asked me to start filling twelve baking pans with sliced potatoes (we were preparing scalloped potatoes for Easter lunch), so I started placing them in the pans one by one. When Gretchen saw my pain-staking method, she grabbed the bucket of potatoes from commenting that I would be there all day, and began pouring the potatoes in the pans. Okay, that is definitely faster. I really would have been there all day!! That is certainly something I would not let myself live down on any other day, but for some reason, I was able to laugh it off. I was laughing at myself, and it felt great!! Not even five minutes later, I made another mistake, and again, I was able to laugh it off. The fact that I cannot even remember what it was that I messed up on is telling in itself. I don't forget any mistake I make, and two days later, I have no idea what it was. This is an incredible feeling!!

Honestly, I just cannot believe what a life-changing experience St. John's offered me, and I am so proud of myself for taking it! I realize what I would have been missing out on had I opted to not fulfill the volunteering experience (nevermind the fact that I wouldn't be able to go on my international experience). I've been on a high for five solid days, and its a wonderful feeling. And one of the most incredible pieces to all of this is how I was able to interact with the patrons. I think that was one of the most nerve-wracking thing for me because I didn't know how I would be able to identify with them. But it just seemed to come naturally. When I was serving the cookies on the lunch line, I seemed to forget, or at least not care who these people were or where they came from. The fact of the matter was that they are just people. Some of them have mental disabilities, some physical, some have substance addictions, and some have just had some pretty shitty luck; but none of it matters. Those are just details. They are real people, they were really right there in front of me, waiting for cookies. And that was all. I learned so much from them, and the extent of our conversations didn't go beyond "Hi, how are you?"

I cannot wait to go back there. I can understand completely, despite the fact that her hours had been completely two weeks into the term, why Cat did not, could not stop going to this amazing, transforming place. It is somewhere that differences don't matter. Just humanity. It's a place to remind us of what it means to be human. To refer back to "Becoming Human," I definitely became human in twenty hours. I will never be the same, and that is the most exciting thing.


  1. Oh Tina, I can't tell you how much my heart is smiling right now! I find it so hard to explain what St. John's is for me, but I feel like you just get it. It humanity at it's best. It's a place where people aren't perfect, and nor does anyone try and pretend like they are. Everyone is there to be part of a community and bring what they have to offer to the table. I'm so glad you shared this with the group! <3

  2. Agreed Tina! This is the perfect description of St. John's, the people and positive effect it has on the people that go there and the community at large. I'm glad that I got the chance to volunteer there as well; and work along side most of you. I guess things really do happen for a reason!

  3. It is wonderful to see you are interacting with people like that. It seems like such a wonderful place to be a part of. I am glad you took the step and went in !

  4. Tina, I remember how nervous I was on my first day of volunteering too...showing up at 8 o'clock and asking the group of sketchy dudes smoking outside exactly how to get in. To dull my anxiety I actually stayed up really late the night before just that I would still be kinda out of it when I was going through the most nerve-wracking part (one of the less destructive coping mechanisms out there haha). So it must have been tough waiting outside a whole half an hour beforehand!
    There really is a comforting humanity to the place. I've worked in a lot of places for a pretty high hourly wage but it's rare to find an environment that is just that satisfying to work in.