Saturday, September 17, 2011

Nervous? Yeah me too. Come volunteer anyway

I get nervous before every trip. Some more so than others. This one is worse than almost any I can remember (at least since the last time I took the group to New Orleans on the day off--still nervous about that one 4 years later, but that is another story).

"Nervous about what?" you say. Everything I say: from someone getting injured to being too poorly organized, from there being too much work to there being too little; from not getting enough done and being in over our heads (literally sometimes!), to not living up to expectations (my own or worse those we have come to help.)

Every trip is like this to varying degrees. I remember being scared going into Biloxi after Katrina on our first trip; scared I would not be able to do anything to help. Scared I was too weak, too inexperienced in disaster response volunteering. Scared I would embarrass myself or those with me.

On subsequent trips to the Gulf I worried I picked the wrong place ('who in the world is Randy?' 'What is Randy's Rangers?', 'could we do more elsewhere?'), whether we could cut the trees they wanted removed, whether we would be as good at putting drywall up as taking it down. 9 trips to the Gulf and was afraid at the start of every one.

I remember vividly when cleaning up a flood in Gowanda NY worrying whether we would be able to satisfy the town leaders who had called references on us before agreeing to allow us in. In Iowa the worry was whether the drive was too long for the amount of work we could accomplish. In Springfield Massachusetts whether we would be able to make an impact on our first short trip after being told repeatedly they had volunteers and had it covered. In Haiti whether I would be able to do any good, and whether I would let down those I so wanted to impress and win over or whether the different culture and environment would be too much. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama whether I would live up to the expectations of my "finance friends" several of whom who wanted answers to simple questions that I had no idea of (like a few days before the trip: "how many are coming"

But in most of those we had at least the veil of the towns people not knowing of us in advance. If we failed it would have been that "group of Yankees", "lazy Americans", "some college volunteers", or "those New Yorkers". That veil is pierced here. "The Valley" is too close to Bonaventure. Caitlin's parents, Erin's Mom and Dad, my former students, too many alums, to close to home. We are known, our record is known, and that raises expectations; we can't let them down. That makes me nervous.

Indeed in many ways I feel I personally have already let them down: we have a small turn out. Too few volunteers. Why? Who knows, but I know I attribute it to poor marketing by me. While I am not sure if it is too little marketing (potential volunteers did not know the enormity of the destruction) or too much (and like the boy who cried wolf, my cries fall on deaf ears), it was my fault. I let them down. People will not get back into their houses because I failed them.

Moreover, while every single person we help is important, it can be easier to work on a home of someone you do not know. Why? Because you are tearing apart the house and it is uncomfortable in the best of times. But if you do not know the family well, you have a mental shelter, however fragile, to retreat to--it is someone's else and will likely never see that person again.

But this time is different. Our first house tomorrow will be on a house of a current SBU student who is with us on this trip. Yes you read that correctly. I had no idea when we chose the locale, but a volunteer who traveled here with us will be working on his own home. I am sure it will be stressful for him and his family. Even more than on every other home I have worked on, I hope we can help. I hope we can help enough to make a real difference.

I hope we live up to the expectations of city officials who have waived some driving restrictions for us so that we can get to more homes tomorrow. How I am afraid I will have to say no to many of those who have asked our help. Not because I want to, but simply because we are limited by a lack of volunteers or by my poor organization that leads to inefficiencies.

I am writing this not to sound like a bumbling coward, but to let those people who are afraid to volunteer, know that being afraid is not a good excuse. For if it were, nearly every BonaResponds project would never have gotten off the ground, and untold thousands of people would be a bit worse off right now.

So face your fears, come out and volunteer. You can do it. You are not too old, too young,too fat, or too skinny. Not too busy or too inexperienced. You will not embarrass yourself, you will not mess things up. I have those covered for you. Come and help. You will be glad you did, but you know who will be even more glad you came to help? The people you helped.

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