How 1 Conversation Forever Changed This Woman’s Perspective on Volunteering

In this season of generosity, a serial volunteer discovers that real charity begins when you shed your expectations.

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Photo by Brian Rea

I’m sitting cross-legged on a gym floor folding tiny pastel pants and shirts while parents from this struggling elementary school peruse donated items.

A woman touches my shoulder. “I’m sorry to bother you, but do you have girls’ 3T pants?” she asks. Every family in this school lives below the poverty line. The clothes are free. I look at the little girl by her side and give her a whole stack to keep.

“I just need two,” she says, taking from the top of the pile without flipping through. She hands the rest back with a smile. “Save them for people who really need them.”

As a volunteer, you find these are the moments that crystallize and stay with you, returning when you’re stuffing clothes into your own kids’ brimming dressers or wedging yet another ski jacket in the front-hall closet: “perfect” moments of giving and receiving, with, say, a mother who is generous and grateful, even in her own difficult circumstances. These are the moments that gratify us and keep us coming back to lend our time at the coat drive, the soup kitchen, the toy giveaway.

What’s hard to admit, though, is that it’s not so easy to feel gratified when recipients of help don’t say their lines as written, don’t act the part we think they should. At least it hasn’t been for me.

When I was 16, my church youth group volunteered to serve meals in an inner-city soup kitchen. We washed dishes and doled out beans and mashed potatoes to a long line of homeless men. Most of them didn’t make eye contact or express more than a mumbled thanks. Afterward, the pastor asked for our reflections. The room was silent; and then, finally, one of the girls said softly, “I didn’t really like being here. I guess...” She paused, embarrassed. “...I wanted them to be more grateful.” I cringed—because I’d been thinking the same thing.

At the time, it hadn’t occurred to me how it might feel to be one of the men in that line. What was it like to accept a plateful of charity from a bunch of suburban teenagers who were dabbling in do-gooding, then heading back to warm beds and well-stocked refrigerators? If I’d been in their shoes, would I really have been making small talk?

It wasn’t until almost two decades later (an embarrassingly long time) that I had any idea, thanks to a mom of two whom I knew. Andrea worked full-time as a special-education aide, making maybe $9 an hour. She was single, struggling to make ends meet. We became friendly when I was part of a team working on a Habitat for Humanity house for her. At Christmas, I gently suggested that she sign up for a local nonprofit’s giveaway of holiday gifts.

She said no.

“Look, honey,” she explained, “you don’t even like asking a friend to bring your kid home from soccer. Do you know what it does to you to stand in line and say to strangers, ‘Help me—I can’t even buy presents for my own kids’?” I want to be the one giving gifts to charity, not the other way around, she told me. “And no matter how nice they are,” she added, “you know they’re checking you over: Why are you here? Do you really need help?

“There’s no way to explain that you work full-time and it just doesn’t pay enough,” she continued, “or that your ‘leather’ jacket is a $4 knockoff from the Salvation Army. There’s no time to tell them that your nails are fancy only because your sister is in beauty school and she practices on you for free. There’s no chance to mention that your cell phone has the cheapest plan available, and you have the phone because your son gets seizures and his school needs to be able to reach you. There’s no opportunity to say that your kid is clutching a Happy Meal toy not because you laugh in the face of nutrition but because it’s his birthday and that’s the only celebration you can afford. So instead you stand in line keeping your eyes down or maybe you crack a joke to break the tension.” I listened silently to Andrea, blinking back tears. For the first time, I had a real sense of what it might be like to be on the other side of the charity exchange.

Sometime later I was helping out at a holiday giveaway where recipients happened to be extremely enthusiastic. As soon as the doors opened, people bolted to the electronics area to claim the donated TVs. They hoisted them overhead in victory. Some of the volunteers giggled, the way that you chuckle knowingly at children sprinting for cupcakes. (“Wow, don’t get in their way! They’ll knock you over!”) I’m not proud to admit that I smiled along.

But then it occurred to me: We all run for the things we can’t get any other way. Maybe we dash across the store on Black Friday for that Xbox, or we throw a few elbows to get our kid into the last slot in theater camp. In a town a few miles from me, parents routinely camp out for more than a week in the snow to secure a spot at a foreign-language magnet school, and you will get roasted over their fire if you try to cut in line. We all go a little crazy for the stuff we can’t get by other means.

In hoping for a certain kind of volunteering experience (even without realizing that we’re hoping for it), we’re burdening the people we’re trying to help. Asking them to thread the needle—be appreciative but not desperate—is asking too much when we shouldn’t be asking anything at all. Sometimes what looks like sullenness is actually shame or pride. And bravado is just shame in a big, loud hat. Either way, it’s none of our business.

I still catch myself wishing for magic moments of gratitude this time of year; I treasure volunteer experiences where I feel like I’ve made a difference. But overall I’ve moved the bar. Now I feel that not making someone feel worse on a particular day qualifies as a victory. And even if I occasionally forget, deep down I know the best gift I can give as a volunteer: generosity devoid of expectation.