What Volunteerism Panic Feels Like

In exactly a week from now, I will be probably in bed – hours before my usual bedtime.  I will be exhausted, probably a bit sore, and thoughts and lists will be racing through my brain.  We will have had God knows what for dinner, I’m thinking take out.  If I cooked over the weekend like I’m planning on doing, then we’ll have something homemade – defrosted and reheated.  Add that cooking to my ever growing list of things to do in the next 11 days.

For the past 8 months, I’ve been a part of a big project in our town of Succasunna, NJ.  The old playground at the local park, and play-hub of the township, for the past 19 years was going to come down for safety and insurance reasons.  It had been built by volunteers “way back when” and the plan was that the new one would come together the same way.

But things are different now, in many ways.  First, we’re in a recession.  The playground isn’t free or even cheap.  Second, the materials are recycled composite instead of treated wood.  The upfront costs are outweighed by the safety and longevity.  Third, our town is struggling with rising property taxes (hello, NJ!), a defeated school budget, a controversial turf field installed at the high school, and fewer businesses in town.

Originally, the members of the playground steering committee, myself among them, speculated that we’d have more volunteers than funds.  We set up a long range plan for recruiting volunteers as well as planned a comprehensive fund raising schedule.  Sub committees were formed, tasks assigned and off we went.

Lo and behold, here we are, just one week from the build.  And we have plenty of funds, amazingly,  from individuals, families, businesses and organizations.  Fund raisers were widely supported and local businesses stepped up in ways that absolutely surpassed what anyone could have reasonably expected in this economy.

And, yet, I’m panicking.  On the inside, of course.  Outwardly, I’m composed, organized and confident. Yes, hundreds of people will sign up in the next few days or walk up during the build itself.   The weather will be perfect, attracting all sorts of people that otherwise would have stayed home instead of helping for a few hours.

The tools, materials, miscellaneous supplies, food and beverages will be plentiful.  There will be a reliable generator, and the heavy equipment will all work perfectly.  No glitches!

But I am still panicking on the inside.  We need people.  LOTS of people.  As in, hundreds of people.  We need people over the course of 5 full and busy days.  I’ve talked to friends in town, extolling the fun – yes, this will be fun! – and hard work, culminating in a fantastic playground that our kids, and their kids, will enjoy.  This playground is truly designed to last for 30 years.  I do expect my (future) grandchildren to play on it, with Alicia and Nicholas telling them that we helped make it possible now and then.

So how do you get people to volunteer for something?  It’s a no brainer for me, as I’m drawn to helping someone, something, etc. without financial payment.  Mike and I are light years apart on this.  What is natural for me is inconceivable to him.  He supports my efforts, knowing that they are intrinsically important to me as well as rewarding to me, our family, our town, etc.  But he also looks at me with a shake of his head – he simply cannot understand why I spend my time and skills at something that I will not be paid for.  I’ve seen the looks, and I’ve given up trying to explain to him WHY and HOW it feels to help out.  I’ve also given up appealing to him to join me in some of the work.

During those 5 build days, he will either be working or home.  He will not be at the playground site at all.  If I can’t convince him to help, can I really expect to talk anyone else into it?

Let’s look at who have I been able to recruit so far – Nicholas, who easily signed up for the idea and has been (mostly) enthusiastic about it – he contributed to the design, collected pennies, wears his “Built it” t-shirt, and will be helping out on one of the build days.  Then there are my parents, who are taking time off from work (!) and coming from their home, out of state (!!), to help.   They are the trees, as it were, and I am an apple from either/both.

Sure, I could pull out the guilt card.  I fully intend to lay it on thick with Alicia (who is working all of those 5 days, so she has a good reason, but still….).  The carrot will be a spa day for she and I.  It’s a win-win, actually.

And, yep, I have no problem begging a few friends who may be on the fence and just need to be assured that their time will be well spent.  And that they don’t have to use a tool if they don’t want to, because, so far, mostly they don’t want to.

My experience with this particular project so far has already been extremely fun (at times) and rewarding.  I’ve met some wonderful people, gotten to know a few folks better than I knew them before this all started, and I am already proud of what we’ll accomplish.  I’ve honed some writing skills by writing press releases on a regular basis, collaborated on publicity measures, and worked with other committees to get some things coordinated smoothly.  I could possibly put some of these skills to work in an paying capacity at some point down the road.  Who knows?  My motives aren’t exclusively noble.  I benefit in many ways by helping, both short and long term.

But back to the playground…

Naive, maybe, as I really do think it will be a great bonus for the town.  The park is already wonderful with a beach, a walking/running/bike path, numerous fields, a performing arts center, and now, of course, a gem of a new playground.  We spend a lot of time at this park, almost all year long.  Now it will be even nicer to be there.  Build it and they will come and all that.

I wish I could, somehow, find the words to explain to Mike, and others, just how great it feels to be a part of something that extends beyond your family and home.  Maybe then the playground, and every other well intended and worthy project that will follow, will be successful because lots of people came together to make it happen.

Maybe then, I wouldn’t feel like so panicked.  On the inside only, of course.

In the meantime, it’s time to dust off the cape, don the suit and smile.  I have a long ‘to do’ list to tackle and the clock is ticking.  Loudly.

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