Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Confessions of a Volunteer

by Colleen Dolan

Unlike most Street Sense volunteers, it was neither my selflessness nor my willingness to sacrifice my free time that got me here. Contrarily, I was brought here to satisfy a basic course requirement. That, and the fact that I wanted to expand my social life.

I am a first–year student at George Washington University. This semester, I signed on to take a “Writing for Social Change” course – a course I registered for based on the fact that it did not meet on Fridays. For the class, we were to spend 20 hours at a community organization which, I figured after painstaking debate, would be a small sacrifice for having Thursday nights free to expand my social life.

Day 1 of the class proved to be a rude awakening, however. Participants in my small seminar went around the room discussing community service they had already participated in.

“President of the community service club.”

“I went to Africa with Seeds of Peace.”

“I raised thousands to feed children in poor countries.”

Suffice it to say, I was in way over my head.

It was on this day that we chose the organizations we would work with. As a declared journalism major, I was in luck and immediately signed on to work with Street Sense.

It was my first meeting with Koki, editor of Street Sense, which made me slightly unsure of what I was in for. She asked about my history in journalism and I gave her a brief description of working on my high school newspaper, slipping in the fact that I had a few stints on ABC–TV in New York. Naturally, she asked how I had managed to be on arguably the biggest news channel in New York City. I gave a response that has become almost mechanical, explaining that my parents work as TV journalists. But the usual response of “Getting into the family business?” or “Really? What are their names?” didn’t come.

Needless to say, I was surprised but also rather relieved. In fact, it was this implication that I needed to prove myself that led me to agree to come into the office six hours a week, rather than the one hour required by my course. This was a decision for which I was immediately grateful.

Once I walked into the office, I knew this would be an experience entirely different than what I had anticipated. Usually an outgoing person, I was rendered unsure of what to say in front of the extroverted vendors and volunteers.

I spent my early hours at Street Sense quietly running toward the stairs when the doorbell rang and issuing vendors their papers. I was taken aback by their “Hey pretty girl, how are you?” attitude, and unsure of what to say.

After my first few weeks, I realized my nerves were getting the better of me. At this point, I began making a clear effort to know the different vendors – quickly being able to say hello to them by name as I greeted them at the door.

The vendors were genuinely unlike anything I expected. On a busy afternoon, Conrad Cheek Jr. took the paper sign–out sheet from me. “Look, I’ll show you how to do it faster,” he said, proceeding to teach me a superior way to give out large numbers of papers. Jeffery McNeil asked me for advice on what to put on posters and in his articles, while cheerfully telling me about the job interview he had later that day. Brittany Aubin, the intern I worked side–by–side with on Wednesdays, wrote article upon article, fixed Web site glitches and then jetted out just in time for evening classes at American University. I was truly surrounded by remarkable, exceptional people.

After receiving only a B– on the paper for my writing class (on which I had slaved away endlessly), I found myself on the verge of giving up the class. It was only my time at Street Sense that encouraged me to reconsider.

With classes now ending, I’m not looking for an excuse to get out of this last week at Street Sense, which will not count toward any class credit. Rather, I am looking forward to sitting in the office a little longer and getting to know the intelligent, charismatic vendors and volunteers a bit better before saying good–bye.

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