Very early on in my inner city work, I was a volunteer buddy for a person in the projects.
It was East Palo Alto. My buddy was a 22 year old woman. She had five children from five different men. They lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a complex with wire grates on every window.
At the time I was 16. Fairly nascent in my volunteer work, I was eager to jump in and help. I was still shocked by all the poverty, only 2.1 miles away from my home. The word “UNACCEPTABLE” was spelled foremost in my mind. It’s what drove me everyday.
We would meet to discuss life. To just spend time together. This time, I had made an effort to bring her a casserole that I had made for her family. We had agreed to the time. I figured as a busy mom that she would really appreciate the meal. I was now here and knocking on the door.
I knocked again…. again.
The casserole rested warmly in my hands, as I shifted its weight to knock.
This time, I knocked a little bit louder. “Gloria”? I asked.
I waited a little bit more.
It was 6 p.m., and awfully silent around the projects. There was some blaring music coming from a far-end apartment. Then it would stop, silent…it was a bit eery. I wondered… were people sleeping? Working?
I waited some more.
I knocked again and called her name. I waited.
I knocked again and said, “Gloria, this is Pamela. I have our dinner… would you be able to open up?”
The response was silence. I left the lukewarm casserole on the doorstep, hoping that it would be received and walked away to my car.
I didn’t hear form her.
Every day I tried to call her.
Weeks later I heard from her. On this phone call, I learned a lot:
“Gloria, how are you? I stopped by for the dinner the other day as we agreed but you weren’t there?”
“No, I was there.”
“You were there?”
“Gloria, what happened? We decided that I was going to drop off dinner… I was excited to have that there for you.” There was silence.
“I didn’t feel like it,” said Gloria.
“I just didn’t want to open the door.”
Gloria taught me a lot that day.
When you are a volunteer, one of the most important things to do is to not to force a situation.
You are not there to make happen what you think should happen.
You are there to serve.
This is service in an entirely different way. Service does not always mean accomplishment of the task. Some of us Americans are very “doer-oriented.” We want to accomplish. That’s what our founding fathers based our society on: We had to conquer the West. We had to be very resilient and resourceful. In many ways, we still are.
With that resourcefulness comes a strong will. That will sometimes prevents us from listening to others or listening to the situation.
As a volunteer, you think, I am supposed to serve the meal. But we don’t know what was going on in Gloria’s mind. She was a mom, twenty years old, with five children. Her jobs went in and out — as did her family. I can’t imagine how overwhelmed she must have been.
As volunteers we need not to focus “on our side of the story.” “I am doing a good thing. I made all this effort to make a meal. Why wasn’t she there?”
All those thoughts are wrong.
The thought we must have as volunteers everyday is:
“I am here to serve in a way that makes my buddy the most comfortable, with a sense of kindness, listening and love.”
That does not always mean that you get to complete the delivery of a meal. That does not mean that you get to finish building the house, constructing the well or cleaning up the river.
Sometimes it means being present with someone. Sometimes it means making 6 phone calls before you get in touch with someone. Sometimes it means backing off and giving them space. Sometimes it means showing up on the doorstep with warm casserole, knocking, never hearing a response, and not knowing if they ever ate it. You leave your agenda behind.
To be a volunteer is precious. You listen, you serve, you focus on being present. You love, and don’t judge.
No matter what happens when you serve, you Keep on Loving and you Keep on Believing.