The Heart of a Volunteer: full of joy, full of sadness.

This posting is written as a wisdom story for my grandchildren. They all have wonderful hearts and an instinct to help where they can. A Special Olympics group, a depressed friend, insuring everyone gets the meds they need at a reasonable price, the marginalized and poor. They have helped me hand out lunches to the homeless, coats to the cold and collected shoes for children in Guatemala. And, as young adults, they are learning that it seems there are never enough volunteers or resources to help (or save) the world.

About eighteen months ago when my research began on groups that could train me to be a volunteer for refugees and asylees, my conviction was that the education and work experience under my belt would prove useful. It did,  but some where in my life I missed the training for being able to distance myself from the pain of the families from their traumas of moving and isolation and fear. Just like anything else in life, the person going through the trauma has to push through it, him/her self. Watching and not being able to “fix” the problem has human pain no matter how extensive your training.

Last week, after a month of time changes and miscommunication and plans changed, our original family matriarch, H. was ready to go to an English class that was to last for an hour each Wednesday. She would need transportation and could take her children, as child care was provided. She had realized at the end of the school year that her not being able to speak English kept her from questioning her daughter’s teacher and also needing a translator when she wanted to speak privately with a doctor. She is an adult learner who can recognize the alphabet and English words, but has great fear getting them out of her mouth. Everyone else in the home is advancing well in the language that is new to them.

I was the substitute driver and was happy to help H. with anything she needed. We went to pick up her brother’s aunt by marriage and a woman who is in the newest wave of Afghani families who are here because the husbands were involved with the American special forces. I am suddendly surrounded by people who have no idea what I am saying. Luckily the class was a three-minute walk and we headed out. The women were talking six miles a minute to each other like a group of any other students on their way to class.

They settled themselves at a table and it was time for me to take a break while they worked their brains. Let me tell you about the non-profit that offers classes. They are called Project Access and they help low-income people who live in affordable housing with health, education and employment. There were seven women around the table from at least three different countries and some of their children were settled about 50 yards away completing art work.

When I returned each of “my” women proudly pulled out papers and showed me what they had written and H. even said a few of the words to me. She was beaming with a new sense of empowerment. The teacher told me that several of the women were illiterate in their home language because the ruling group of their home countries did not allow women to go to school. I started getting that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and the overwhelming feeling of a world problem still so big we could not personally make a dent in it. On the way back to the apartment of the woman newest to the United States, she and H. could not talk fast enough. It was the first time in several months that the woman had spoken to another woman in her language…..and she is six months pregnant. They laughed and smiled and it reminded me of the novel The Red Tent, and about our need for support for each other in a world or culture where women are stifled.

H. wanted to go to a program about healthy eating for children the center had two days later. High and happy on her success she had secured transport from us and asked her husband. He said no. English classes were the only reason she could leave the house without him.

Now, dear grandchildren, you can imagine your Nana’s disappointment and sorrow. Some of you remember my rants after the first two seasons of the TV show MAD MEN, since personally living thought that time of struggle for women once had been enough. I did not need to watch a show about it. As a volunteer, my job is to facilitate what is necessary for survival for the physical needs of the families. I cannot change the culture, the education, the minds and hearts of the groups other than by being a role model and offering suggestions. I can introduce our varied American cultures and try and explain them. My heart is there to serve and not to interfere. Thus, joy at the new experiences they will have and sorrow at the limitations they will set for themselves in this first generation.

Loading groceries at a local food bank as a volunteer would be easier, but then I would miss the shine on the faces of the children when I stop by to read them a story, or take a new nature magazine to the women.

Joy wins over sadness.

Nana Joanna




Author: furloughbaby

I am an elder working toward extraordinary. A retired professional, I teach classes at Colorado Free University and enjoy my family.

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