The Dos & Don’ts Of Holiday Volunteering

by Janet Conroy-Quirk
Originally Published: 
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Online giving campaigns. Toy drives. Food donations. A loop of Lennon reminding you that it’s Christmas and asking what you’ve done. The act of giving back can take various forms, and is often dependent on what we feel comfortable offering financially, emotionally, or physically. I hold an MSW degree and worked in direct social services in New York City for 15 years, before pursuing acting and writing full time.

I worked in settings ranging from homeless shelters to residential facilities to community/senior centers. I saw hundreds of beautiful examples of why volunteering has such a unique impact on the volunteer, the clients they interact with, and the overall population being served. There was always a huge spike in interest around the holidays. I’ll admit that it was somewhat frustrating to see the disparity in volunteer inquiries in November/December, as opposed to the other ten months of the year. But it was still encouraging to watch.

Volunteerism is a significant contribution that deserves recognition. People step out of their comfort zones and serve individuals that they might otherwise not engage with. But, like all well-intended gestures, there can be some glitches and misunderstandings. My hope is to provide some guidelines for how to make your volunteer experience as positive and fulfilling as possible — for you and for the individuals you’ll be spending time with.

DO Be Respectful Of The Space You Are In

In many cases, organizations struggle to do their work in facilities that are old or crowded. It is eye-opening to set foot in, for example, a homeless shelter for the first time. It may be uncomfortable. It’s okay to have that reaction. However, try to avoid making comments on the environment or conveying discomfort non-verbally. Feel free to take breaks as needed. If you observe something that appears to be an immediate danger or hygienic hazard, discreetly report it to a staff member. Conversely, try to appreciate what’s been done creatively with the space! Take a look at murals or paintings, posted poetry or writings by clients, even plaques about the facility’s history. All of this will help to realize that you are, in many ways, visiting someone’s home, and learning their story.

DO Be Aware Of Guidelines About Photos/Social Media

Tempting as it may be to capture a moment of connection or beauty, make sure that you familiarize yourself with the organization’s photo/social media policies. Many organizations will not permit any photos, as they may inadvertently include clients in the background. This is, understandably, related to confidentiality issues and safety precautions, and it’s important to adhere to what you’re told, no matter what. I’ve encountered volunteers taking photos of clients and then telling me that a client “…said it was fine — and they’re an adult.”

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Keep in mind that even a verbal consent may not really be a “yes.” This is particularly true of individuals living with dementia or mental illness. A “yes” today may not be remembered tomorrow. A nod to the question, “Can I put this on Instagram?” means nothing when Instagram is an unknown concept. If documenting your volunteer efforts with photos is that important to you, it’s best to refer to the staff that are present. They can tell you which clients are consistently comfortable with photos. Some of them love it! I knew a 90-year-old woman who insisted on photos and videos at every event we held. And damn, could she do the Macarena. Err on the side of caution and trust in the staff’s familiarity with their clients. Remember that someone from the organization is probably handling photography, anyway. You can always access their photos at a later date.

DO Understand That The Task You Want May Not Be What Is Needed

Guilty of this myself! I get it. You’re a fantastic decorator and you were hoping to be in charge of the Thanksgiving table settings and decorations. However, you go to work your placemat magic and find that there are already 15 people too many arranging the centerpieces. Yet, no one is plating the pie, so you’re asked to do that. It’s frustrating to have a special talent or skill and want to share it, and not get the opportunity. Try to roll with it. Complete the task you were assigned and then check in with a staff member about any other ways you might put your talent to use. Sometimes it’s possible, sometimes it’s not. Unless you are asked to perform a task you physically can’t do or have a valid objection to, it’s time to just put your Mets hat on and remember that teamwork makes the dream work. Or so I’m told by my husband.

DON’T Promise To Get Involved In A Client’s Treatment/Services Or “Fix” A Situation

This is tough. Let me preface this by saying that I believe that every voice deserves attention. When you volunteer, you may encounter clients telling you of unmet needs or dissatisfaction with their services/caseworker, etc. It may feel very tempting to offer help, either through contacts, money or media attention. It’s not that simple. I don’t believe in discrediting anyone. I believe that clients reach out to new people out of frustration, connection, and a genuine desire for change. However, I also know how complex some situations are and how solid the barriers are to achieving what looks like “success.”

What I mean by that is that stories have many dimensions and many chapters. It is not your duty, nor your job, to sort out or solve a client’s situation during your visit. But don’t ignore it, either. If you are told something that upsets you, speak to a staff member. Keep in mind that they will not be able to share specifics about what is being done to help the client. In some cases, an appropriate follow-up measure might be an email to the volunteer coordinator, program director or anyone else within the organization’s management team.

DO Respect Confidentiality Guidelines and Boundaries

You may learn a lot about some very vulnerable people. It’s hard to know to respond when someone shares stories of trauma or loss. You may feel compelled to tell them a sad story of your own. Rethink that urge. They didn’t ask for that weight to carry, and they may not be able to take it on. Instead, listen. You don’t have to know what to say. Just be present. Don’t press for details. Don’t give an opinion. If the topic is upsetting you, politely extract yourself and check in with a staff member. Maybe take a few minutes to yourself. Depending on where you’re volunteering, protect yourself by not giving too much information about your home, job, and children. This doesn’t mean you can’t share a bit about your life, but it is important to be cautious. Topics like pets, hobbies, sports, movies, books, history are generally neutral and can lead to nice recollections and stimulating conversation. Remember that the person you’re seeing is more than their situation, diagnosis or struggle.

DON’T Do It If Your Heart Isn’t In It

Organizations do their best to show appreciation. And clients often love seeing new faces and enthusiastic spirits. But volunteering can be a hard day. It might start very early or go later than you planned. Things might be messy. And unfortunately, not everyone will be in a good mood, especially at the holidays. Some clients, particularly in residential facilities or congregate meal settings, are not pleased to be there. You may not get a thank you. You may even get an “eff you.” Plan ahead of time and consider what type of setting is best for your volunteer experience — and for anyone you’re bringing with you. Which brings me to the issue of children/teens.

Some of the best volunteers I’ve ever seen have been young people who were genuinely interested in connecting and listening to clients. But I’ve also experienced the arms-crossed, headphones on, eye-rolling teen whose parent waved a paper in my face at 9 a.m. asking me to “sign off on his community service requirement,” before we had even started the holiday meal that wouldn’t end until 3 p.m. If your child/teen is resentful of volunteering or doing it to check a box or pad an application, that will be apparent to everyone. You are entering and affecting peoples’ lives when you volunteer. Don’t force an “experience.”

DO Take Care Of You

Volunteering will awaken a lot of emotions — maybe some you weren’t ready for. You might notice that the older man to whom you served turkey looked a lot like your grandfather. Or you’ll reflect that the four year old opening a toy probably doesn’t have a playroom to bring it home to, while your child does. Volunteering is about people and stories, and it’s natural to connect/compare them to our own lives and loved ones. When you go home, you will want to tell your family, friends, partner, therapist all about it, to process it all. Good. Do that. And remember your grandfather and hug your child, and know that you are appreciated. You’ve affected lives, and it matters.

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