Do What You Love

I have one golden rule for volunteering: I will only do what I love.  I am on the board of the kids’ playschool.  I volunteer in the community.  I volunteer a fair bit at the kids’ elementary school.  And in each of those arenas, I have only ever taken on what I felt I could truly enjoy or do in my own way and in my own time.


A few years ago, I was asked to help out with the reading intervention programme at my kids’ elementary school, a programme in which parents volunteer to work on reading each morning with a child who is falling behind.  I did not hesitate for a second when I said, “No.”  I’m sure that the principal was very surprised by my response.  I have three avid book lovers for kids; I have a Ph.D in literature; I taught adult literacy in Canada, and EFL in Japan, before getting my Ph.D.; and I am the biggest bibliophile on the block.  But I knew that I would not be a good fit for the job of working through the dreary leveled readers.  (I’m also trained in teaching through phonics, not whole language, but that’s a debate for another day!)  I do not want to struggle with the mechanics of reading without the payoff of great stories.  I love books, but  I do not have the gift of coaxing children into doing something they do not want to do or cheering them on through their struggles.  I didn’t even teach my own children to read.  Sure, I did a bit of work on sounding words out with them, when they seemed ready and interested.  But I was not heavily involved with the mechanics of their learning to read.  What I did, and did well and did willingly and with my whole heart, was to read aloud to them every night from books that we both found appealing (they vetoed The Wombles, I refused ever to read anything with a superhero).  They learned first a passion for story, then they learned to read.  To have the element of great literature removed from the equation of teaching a child to read just had no appeal for me.  So I said a firm, if slightly sad, “No.”  (It really did take being firm with myself not to give in to the appeal for what is undoubtedly a huge benefit to a struggling child.  It pushed every guilt button in my psyche.  But I still said, “No.”)

Instead, I do what I love to do.  At the school this year, among other things, I organized the annual book sale, I chaired the planning committee for the graduation party, and I was the co-ordinator for the classroom parent representatives.  Each of these jobs gives value to the staff and students at the school, but they also each speak to things I love: sorting the thousands of donated books–Bring it on!–kids’ party-planning–Yes, please!–meeting other parents and helping to improve school communication–I’m there.

When we decided on a topic for this month’s At Issue, I thought I’d be writing a very different post.  I thought it would be about how I need to say “no” more often, how I resent how stay-at-home mothers often get asked to take on so much (on the assumption that they have nothing else to do!), how hard I find it to value my own volunteer efforts (“Oh, it was nothing, really.”)  But as I sat down to write, I realized that this year has seen me take on more volunteer work than ever, but it has all been with deliberate care, with a willing “Yes.”  Volunteering should be something that is mutually beneficial, and although there have been times when I have had just a little too much on my plate, at least it has always been something that gave me as much pleasure and reward as I gave it hard effort.  The guilt about saying no is still there, but I’m saner for it.

6 thoughts on “Do What You Love

  1. I love your description of the “readers”, they stink! I even find myself gritting my teeth reading some Dr. Suess aloud to my little one. I just bought Stuart Little as our first chapter book to read from a bit each night versus four or five little picture books. I’m hoping I don’t keep my little guy up until midnight because mommy can’t stop reading…
    ~a fellow bibliophile

  2. Right on. I was a professional fundraiser for over a decade and was constantly ask to run fundraisers as a volunteer. I was good at it, but I was also over it at 5pm when I went home to my family. I have worked hard to choose volunteer roles that speak to my passions that do not see the light of day from 9 to 5. Saying no is so challenging, but saying yes to the right things and having enough energy and enthusiasm to do the job well pays off so much in the end.

  3. Last year, I was very heavily involved in a formal volunteer role with a city-wide organization. I enjoyed it, but when things shifted on the work-life front at home, I had to step down. When I read these posts this week, I thought about how I don’t volunteer anymore. Then last night, I was walking home from a meeting with a reporter about a neighbourhood tree-planting project I’m involved with, and it suddenly dawned on me that everything I’ve done the last few years for that–tree-planting, intensive tree-watering through last year’s drought (with water ferried from home in a stroller!), emails, article in the community newspaper, fund-raising–that’s all volunteer work too but I wasn’t even registering it as such, I guess because of love/investment.

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