Check it out. This is me, on a recent Saturday, at St. Mary’s Food Bank, unloading crates and putting food into boxes. Not my most photogenic moment, and my mood wasn’t great either, as I had just finished a 30 minute car ride with my disgruntled 14 year-old son, who wanted only to stay in his bed. An hour into the job, both he and I warmed up to it, as usually happens, and I started looking around me.
Not surprisingly, I found I knew many people there. Within about an arm’s length was a dad I knew from cub scouts, who took our picture; a surgeon-mom who pulled the pocketknife out of her purse so I could slit the tape on the crates; and a mom who’d dragged her daughter, on the day of her senior prom, down to pack food boxes for the poor. I’m sure right before hair, mani/pedi and make-up. This got me thinking about how volunteerism impacts my life. I decided to track for a week what I observed others doing to make a difference, without pay or direct personal gain. Even I was surprised by the depth and scope of activity.
Much of the volunteering I observed has to do with my school age children. In just one week, I packed a basket, picture below, of items donated by every child in my son Mike’s advisory group to thank his advisor for help over the course of the school year.
I also learned that NJHS students at his school donated 1650 hours in time this spring semester. I observed physician parents complete the physicals for the entire class of freshman at the school he will attend in the fall for $20 a head, and parent association moms “thank” each other at a mother’s day brunch.
This level of volunteerism is so ever-present, seamless and unaffected, it barely even registers as extraordinary, until I try to fathom what life would be like without it. And I’ve only commented on the formal aspects; not the endless emails showing real concern about how other peoples’ children will get to practice, camp, or games. The village Hillary Clinton spoke of is hard at work. What would we do without each other?
These thoughts about volunteerism caused me to more carefully observe my younger son Joe’s life as well. Doug Stiteler has coached my son Joe’s football team since kindergarten, with his buddy Bill Vitti, and many other dads. These men are so much a part of Joe’s landscape he would not be able to imagine what they might be doing were they not coaching at endless practices and games. Reading the paper, perhaps? Playing golf? This same week Joe was asked to be a buddy to an incoming student next August (“yes”). The culture of volunteerism – both giving and receiving – cuts both ways for both of my boys.
As a lawyer, I have many opportunities to see other lawyers give back to the community. Most recently, a young lawyer at Snell and Wilmer, Irina, has made our friend Rus’s immigration issues her personal business. Rus was separated from his parents when he was an infant in the Congo, and they and four younger siblings are still in a refugee camp in Uganda. Irina, I am convinced, thinks of Rus and his family the first thing every morning and the last thing before she goes to sleep at night. She is determined to make a difference. As an experienced lawyer, I know this type of case will become her most meaningful work as she reflects back on her career many years from now.
These days, my weeks almost always include some dressed-up volunteerism. This particular week, I attended an event for Release the Fear, a local arts organization providing outreach in juvenile detention centers; a perfectly executed get-together of the American Heart Association Heart Ball Committee; and an evening event for the Southwest Center for HIV/Aids. (The pictures below are my lovely daughter Maureen with Robert Miley of Release the Fear, Lynne and me at the AHA event, and Maureen with two of her law school friends at the HIV event.) These are upscale, full place setting, sophisticated crowds that raise millions of dollars for much-needed services and research. You find the real beauty of these types of efforts, however, down in the weeds as they are planned and donors are cultivated. For example, Lynne Love, my co-author and chair of the Heart Ball 2012, sent an email to over 100 committee members early the morning after the glitzy event, telling all she’d be parked in Starbucks, working, all that day, if anyone needed to check in and talk. The real work of these glitzy events happens for months behind the scenes, and is anything but glamourous.
Sometimes volunteerism happens in a very small circle, such as the family circle. I spoke to a friend of mine this weekend who was forgoing fun to take her 80 year-old mother to water aerobics, and then to get her new pants altered. “She has a funeral to go to and she wants to look nice,” my friend said, totally matter of fact. Her mother was excited to wear the St. John pants she’d found on sale so she could look with-it for some snarky friends. I had to laugh, and only when I started laughing did my friend realize it was kind of funny. New designer pants for a funeral!
I love to write, and am constantly surprised at the generosity of authors, even accomplished authors, in devoting their time to the development of wannabe writers like me. Have you ever googled the author of a book you’ve enjoyed, found his website, and written him an appreciative email? Try it! Every time I’ve done this, I’ve received a personal response. Next week, I will attend a writing conference in Northern Michigan, led by some of the best writers of our generation. Just because. Just because they can.
And, in the end, isn’t that the root of volunteerism. We do what we can because we can. Just because. Or at least I seem to be surrounded by people who live this ethic each and every day.
Is this just me? Or just Phoenix? What do you think?