Saturday, October 9, 2010

Looking to give back this holiday season? Look a little further.

Since retail stores are already putting holiday stuff on the shelves, I'm going to follow suit here and roll out my first holiday blog product.  So, seasons greetings!

Within the last few weeks at Breakthrough, people have already started inquiring about holiday volunteer opportunities.  Since we have a sampling of all the classic urban ministry programs (homeless shelter, food pantry, and youth program) we usually anticipate a high volume of requests to "give back" during the holidays.  In fact, over the last couple of years, we started getting so many requests that we decided to create several special holiday volunteer opportunities to accommodate the seasonal interest.  And this same thing is happening in community centers across America. The spirit of Thanksgiving and Christmas beckons people to flock to food pantries, shelters, and toy drives to "give back" to those in need.

I think generally it's a good spirit. But what happens on December 26 is of interest to me.  By this time, many are probably reflecting back on their holiday season, hoping that they had a solid holiday experience.  You know, were they able to get in all the standard serendipitous stuff that is supposed to happen this time of year: quality time with family, good eating, catching a holiday program or two, more eating, watching It's a Wonderful Life, giving and receiving great gifts, watching It's a Wonderful Life again, and getting out to the community center to give back to the less fortunate?  But usually by that day, people are also returning unwanted gifts back to stores, and quietly returning their volunteer spirit back into the storage closets along with the other holiday decorations, not to be needed again for another 12 months.

And so I fear that during the holidays people reserve a spot volunteering at the soup kitchen with the same motivation that they reserve a seat at the local Christmas musical. 

The reason why I fear this is because it makes me wonder if the itch to "give back" during the holidays is really more an itch to satisfy our own needs than the needs of the needy. You get me?

I'm not poo-pooing holiday volunteering. Serving and giving anytime are good and needed.  So I do want to bless holiday volunteer opportunities, but my point is that if you desire to give back and help the less fortunate, then you'll need to look a little further if you want to make a lasting difference.

Here are some ways to look a little further this holiday season, and hopefully begin a meaningful volunteer journey:

1. Look past the holidays
Once you find a place to volunteer this Thanksgiving or Christmas, stick around for a little while. Try volunteering there at least once a month for about 3-4 months. And see if it sticks. (And also know that nothing would delight a Volunteer Coordinator more to learn that you'd like to commit to volunteer for a little while!)

Spending just a little more time volunteering in the same place becomes an experience of discovery. You'll discover people's stories, you'll discover difficult structural problems with society, you'll discover ugliness, and you'll discover beauty. Most importantly, eventually you'll discover what the needy really need.

You may object that you don't have time for that.  But science has shown that time is no longer an effective excuse. Most of us will live to be 80, and we will look back and wish that we had spent less time on ourselves and more time making a difference in the lives of others.  And many of us are already halfway there.

2. Look for dignity
When you really think about the volunteer opportunities that are out there, would you really want to be on the receiving end of them? If you were the unemployed father who couldn't afford Christmas toys for your kids, how would you feel when the happy suburban family comes out to deliver gifts to your kids? Or if you were the woman who lived on the streets, how would you feel after hearing 100 well-to-do people over the course of two weeks saying "Happy Holidays" to you while they served you your meal each night, knowing that they would be gone by December 26, and that you would still be hungry on the street?

Looking for dignifying volunteer opportunities means looking for places that treat people like people, not like "the homeless," or "inner city youth" or "the less fortunate." Look for places that care about people's stories, people's dreams, and people's names. Look for opportunities that seek to build relationships with and to empower those they serve, that flatten out that "giving back" posture into a "giving reciprocally" posture, that embrace a motto like "giving a hand up, not a hand out," and that are committed to the long haul in people's lives.

3. Look inside yourself 
This is the cheesiest one of all, but it's true.  Serving and volunteering regularly is a transformational experience. It's a spiritual discipline. And it is also humbling because it shows you that you are really no different then the people you serve; you can just as easily be less fortunate. And in many ways you already are.

So in your attempt to give back to the less fortunate this holiday season, don't become the unfortunate who forget that poverty and brokenness exist for 363 more days of the year.

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas.

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