Volunteers change the world, a person at a time

April 7, 2014 

Last year I was encouraged to watch a YouTube clip of television star Ashton Kutcher accepting a Teen Choice Award. While I am a big pop culture fan, I was hesitant I’d get anything out of watching a man who has made much of his money “punking” people and starring in romantic comedies.

I was very wrong for being judgmental — Kutcher got up and gave a speech about how opportunity equals hard work. He told them to be smart, thoughtful and generous. He told them that he’s never had a job that he was better than, because opportunity looks a lot like work. He said that everything around us was created by no one smarter than you.

That’s stayed with me, and I think of it often as I walk around the SideWalk house and hear volunteers talking to clients about the opportunities that are in front of them. Every one of the clients is experiencing or has experienced homelessness, and all came to SideWalk for the opportunity to get housing. They have tough conversations with their advocates about their incomes, budgets, and chances for success. Advocates are brutally honest every time they need to be. And they’re there for them. They listen and offer advice and help people set goals and set boundaries.

When you talk to successful SideWalk clients about what they like about SideWalk, one might think they’d start by talking about the rental assistance they received that helped them get from the streets or shelters into housing. They don’t.

The first thing SideWalk clients mention is the volunteers. They put their hands over their hearts when they say the names of their advocates, as if their hearts are full just from the sound of their names.

Clients say that they walked into SideWalk and were treated like a person — sometimes for the first time in years. That’s what works: the treatment of people as individuals who have individual needs and require individual plans. For too many clients, it has been too long since someone asked them what kind of life they wanted to have.

It’s often assumed that volunteers can’t do some of the really hard work there is to be done. But at SideWalk, and as the former program director of the Volunteer Center, I know and have seen a difference. One of our new advisory board members is a volunteer firefighter, and our program director is a live-in shelter volunteer and was a volunteer EMT. I am a foster parent and a court-appointed special advocate for foster children. All of us support the volunteers who are walking side by side with the homeless until they find a home.

This is hard work. Done by volunteers. And hard work equals opportunity. SideWalk volunteers are having the difficult conversations and are walking side by side with clients while they do the hard work of making use of the opportunity we’re giving them.

That’s one advocate, working with one client, trying to figure out what’s going to work. That’s what the clients are grateful for — the people who chose to be there to do the hard work for their benefit.

SideWalk volunteers come from all walks of life — they are stay-at-home moms, retired teachers, business owners, and more. Some have worked in social services and some have not. Some have volunteered all over town and some have not. Some are bird enthusiasts, some are painters, and some are bike enthusiasts. Some are Christian, some are Buddhist and some are atheist.

At our very first fundraiser, former client Merrill Williams stood up in front of the audience and told them that her time at SideWalk and Bread & Roses and SafePlace had helped make her the person she’d always wanted to be. Then her advocate, Pat Fealy, said that volunteering had helped her become the person that she’d always wanted to be.

That’s how we change the world into the place we want it to be — one person at a time, and with hard work.

Thurston County residents volunteer at a higher rate than anywhere in the state — so chances are high that you are one of those people. Next week is National Volunteer Week, and maybe we can spend some of that time celebrating the volunteers who do the hard work of giving opportunity to those who need it, and working with them while they make the most of it.

Happy volunteer week to you!

Emma Margraf is a writer, director of community outreach for SideWalk, a foster parent and a court-appointed special advocate for foster children. She can be reached at margrafemma@gmail.com.

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