When Volunteering Fails: A Cautionary Tale

Helping Hand
Image by Jeff Kubina via Flickr

Fellow T/Ser Michael Salmonowicz blogged recently about the need for, and the power of, volunteerism. There’s no question that choosing to offer your time, skills, intelligence and compassion to someone in need — and that someone might be, or have been, you as well — is the right choice.

It’s the moral choice. What if it doesn’t work out?

My goal is not to dissuade anyone from doing it, but my experience of being a Big Sister was sadly instructive and left me very wary of making such a commitment again. That quite likely deprives me, and others, of some good results.

We rarely hear about the ones that don’t work out because, after all, the idea is to encourage volunteerism, not scare people off.

I became a Big Sister in 1997 or so, handed into a relationship with a 13-year-old Hispanic girl I’ll call Pilar. She lived in a small, crowded, squalid house in my county, a mere 15 minute drive away but might have been in another country. Her mother had disappeared five years earlier and she and her younger brother were being raised by their grandmother, a woman of astonishing ability to lie, spin, deceive and manipulate. But it took me a while to learn this.

I liked Pilar from the first minute we met. Feisty enough to be fun but sweet enough to be likable, she said she wanted to become a writer. We spent about a year and a half together, seeing one another every three weeks or so, as mandated by our agreement.  I took her sailing with friends — her first time on the water, she learned quickly and eagerly. Same thing on the squash court. God bless her, she was game for all sorts of new WASPy adventures.

Sometimes we’d hang out at my apartment or go for drives or just talk.  I took her to her local library one day to work on homework, but she had no idea what a librarian was or how she could help.

By the end of our time together, I decided one way to help her escape the craziness of her home life — lots of shouting, a mother who’d returned suddenly a week after our match and now lived in the basement watching videos all day, junk food, nowhere quiet to read or study — might be boarding school, at a prep school near me that accepts full scholarship students. We went for the meeting, Pilar in her best clothing, her manners eager, awkward. I didn’t even think, I’m ashamed to admit, she’d need coaching for that interview.

They agreed to let her sit in on a full day of classes, to see if there was a fit. She never called, never showed up. I never got an explanation from her family or caseworkers. I had started calling her three days beforehand to help her choose her clothes and talk the day through. No one returned my calls and at 10:00 p.m. the night before, her brother casually mentioned she was at a a relative’s house.

Had she lied to me about her grades? Her eyes lit up when she saw the grounds and buildings of the prep school. “I’d love to go here,” she said that day.

I was, clearly, naive and idealistic. The more I got to know and like her and see her potential, the more I wanted to do to help her get a great education, make new friends, work with her athletic potential, get into college. My family had warned me from the start that this sort of aspirational intrusiveness was dangerous territory.

Her family wanted her as is, even if her granny made a habit of poking Pilar’s belly in front of me, barking “Are you pregnant?”

Only half-way through this increasingly challenging relationship did the caseworker finally admit: “This is one of our toughest families.” You think? Her therapist told me she thought Pilar one of the most manipulative girls she’d met.

Great — liberal, middle-class optimism/guilt/hope meets…what?

Volunteering demands humility. You have no idea, often, what effects — if any — your relationship has on this other person. Should this matter? Matter a lot?

Maybe you teach them a new skill and you can see that happen. But maybe not. If you are a goal-oriented person, this can be confusing.

I often think about Pilar and wonder who and how she is. She’s now in her 20s. Did she ever go to college? Avoid early single motherhood? Is she happy?

I wish I knew.

Here is Michael’s essay in Good magazine.

17 thoughts on “When Volunteering Fails: A Cautionary Tale

  1. inmyhumbleopinion

    I could be completely wrong about this, but it seems to me that the kids from difficult backgrounds are only going to succeed if they have their family’s support. Sounds to me that this poor girl never really had a chance because her family never saw anything wrong with the way they live. It’s similar to the continuing conundrum of black and hispanic kids continually lagging behind their white and Asian counterparts in school, regardless of where they attend. It comes down to the support system and the expectations set by the parents. If parents expect great things from their children and don’t undermine them when they start to gain traction, they have a pretty good chance of breaking the poverty cycle. But if the culture denigrates education, it’s unlikely the kid will break free unless they are uncommonly strong willed. There is a non-profit organization in L.A. that is trying to battle this issue, and is having remarkable success. It’s called “A Place Called Home”. http://www.apch.org Check it out. It would be well worth a donation.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    imho, what struck me – and made me frustrated – was feeling caught between the unclear expectations of the Big Sister folks and the unclear expectations or hopes of her family. If I were to do anything like that again I’d be much more explicit in asking what anyone was hoping for.

    I was offended by my default role to take her out for ice cream or to the movies…It felt like a silly bourgeois response to something much more troubled. That became unmanageable for me.

    1. Jerry Lanson

      Legitimate point that we only hear of the success stories. But then, as a volunteer, you don’t know whether your “failure” still left some mark. Sad, nicely written tale.

  3. Sara Libby

    I’m glad you shared your story – I had a similar experience volunteering recently for a nonprofit where I worked with girls 3rd through 5th grade. It was a terrible commute, it was almost impossible to get – let alone keep – the girls’ attention, and I ended up just feeling like a babysitter. I didn’t feel like they got anything out of it, and therefore I felt the same. Occasionally, there were great moments, but ultimately I felt disappointed. It’s not all wonderful.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Sara, thanks for sharing that. I think it’s not nearly as simple as showing up with even the best of intentions. However un PC to say it, there can be some huge gaps between what you hope to offer and what can actually be accomplished. The challenge now for you, as it was for me…Would we try again , when and how?

    1. April Peveteaux

      I think Jerry’s earlier comment is right – you don’t know if you made a “mark” or not. Hopefully you did. Like dysfunctional family members and friends, you have to detach somewhat but still care enough to be willing to offer help when needed and when appropriate. You have to throw it out there then let it go and hope it makes a difference.
      Wow, that was very Oprah – but it’s how I handle volunteer (and family 🙂 work. You did a wonderful thing.

  5. helaine

    I’m sorry you had this experience but not surprised. Volunteer work is often sold as a cure-all when, in fact, there is almost no way an individual can compensate for generations of social dysfunction and neglect.

    I recently wrote an article about the downsides of parent/school volunteer movement for DoubleX, after coming to the conclusion that much of it encourages us to concentrate on the small and the individual at the expense of addressing greater social issues and inequities in our society. http://tinyurl.com/y8mtusg.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    helaine, this individual approach appeals to the notion that one person can be helpful — a point of light — when the “darkness”, as you said, can be enormous and engulfing. I had a long conversation this evening with someone who had also poured many years and a lot of their own money into someone they hoped to help. Some people, she concluded with regret, do not want to be helped or to help themselves.

  7. Facebook User

    I understand where this would be frustrating. I see that you talked to a representative at BBBS… how long did you wait to call? Why do you think, if this girl was so “manipulative” that she signed up for the program being 13 years old?

    Sorry you had a bad experience. This makes me realize that even though you are trying to volunteer your time and give to the community, you also have to think about your own feelings.

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    Facebook user, her family signed her up; a child can’t just show up, I’m fairly sure, and ask for a Big Sister or Brother. I used to call her caseworker fairly often but she had so many kids to keep track of she barely knew what was happening with the Little Sister I’d been matched with. It was clear she was overwhelmed and didn’t really know how to respond to my concerns. The whole thing left me dispirited, as much for BBBS’ apparent disorganization and unresponsiveness as anything.

  9. Caitlin Kelly

    gregcurts, it’s counter-intuitive when we are exhorted to offer help, as volunteers, and think this is the way to go.

    The U.S., in its dislike of its citizens turning to government for aid, de facto pushes us into individual acts of volunteerism. This is a good impulse. What shocked me, and should not have perhaps, was that the many “official” helpers of my young friend were failing so miserably in their work — paid therapists and counselors and caseworkers, people trained to deal with chronic and multi-generational poverty. How silly of me to think – and how deceptive of them to collude in this fantasy — that I could be of help, let alone without tremendous personal frustration for the way it turned out.

    I have lived in five countries. None was as disorienting and unfamiliar to me as how that family thought and behaved. It was a culture unto itself and not one I could admire.

    1. Facebook User

      I have put my time in and have wondered at the same time what good am I really doing? I (ashamedly) have watched Maury and Jerry thinking its all in good fun, but those people have to come from somewhere….I tend to volunteer in community settings now and those that want and need help can seek me out. I won’t stop volunteering, I have just changed my modus operandi.

      Your article is once again a must read for those thinking about giving their time. Unfortunately there are organizations in their zeal to do good, do harm.

  10. Pingback: What Every College Student Should Know about Volunteering | GlobalShift

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