catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 20 :: 2009.10.16 — 2009.10.29


Volunteering as a way of life

A few thoughts from the field

In my introductory philosophy course in college, we read Pierre Hadot’s claims that philosophy is a way of life.  That string of words, and the implications that examining the world and pursuing wisdom are inherently good activities, stuck in my mind.  The best learning moves a student to action, though.  When considering my post-graduation options, I knew I wanted to act.

Almost three months to the day after graduating, I found myself boarding a flight to Seattle, setting out for a year with Mennonite Voluntary Service.  I brought only two suitcases and a carry-on full of the books I could not bear to leave behind, and a lot of questions.  Thirty-six hours later, suitcases still unpacked, I was trying to navigate the Seattle bus system to arrive at my first day of work.  As a full-time volunteer, I did not know what to expect.  The environmental non-profit where I am serving, Heart of America Northwest, treats me as a full-time staff member…except that I don’t get paid.  It has been gratifying, in these first six weeks, to serve with Heart of America NW because I have realized that my help is absolutely essential to the organization’s existence.  I have never had such responsibility before — and I’m just a volunteer!

The weeks go by with hardly a second thought about paychecks.  All of my basic needs are covered through the program.  I live in a rickety old house on Capitol Hill, in intentional community with seven other Mennonite volunteers.  We have a tight budget for groceries, but we manage by eating four meals per week together on a vegetarian diet.  We each receive $50 a month to spend how we please; it is an ample amount, yet meager enough to be liberating from a consumer-centric culture.  The small aspects of my daily life as a full-time volunteer are what I find most rewarding — when how much I do not need is a constant realization and when going to work each day is something I do for the fact that it offers me a chance to examine the world, and not something I do because I must.

Volunteering seeps into our time “off,” too.  Maybe much of it is motivated by our definitive lack of spending money, but there is also a sense that helping people out is a genuine way to spend our time.  A few weeks ago, for example, a group of my housemates and I volunteered at the annual Seattle AIDS walk, surely not just to receive a free t-shirt!  Putting in four hours of work at the Fremont Oktoberfest earns a volunteer six drink tokens, and there is even a concert venue in the city that keeps ticket prices down by staffing events with volunteers.  Forty hours a week is just getting started!

My housemates and I do not always feel like champions, but we have the constant reminder that we are making a difference every day at our placements.  Many of our organizations in Seattle that do social and environmental justice work could not function without full and part-time volunteers, as funding is scarce.  We are also reminded of the radical spirit of our lifestyle.  We give a lot of ourselves each day for hardly anything material in return — a rather anti-capitalist way of life.

Although it’s hard to explain exactly what is satisfying about volunteering, I know that I cannot look back.  This is a way of life that I can carry with me — even as I move through graduate school and (potentially) acquire a salaried job.  Volunteering offers me a chance to actively examine the world, or my city, or my neighborhood, and to do something with it that isn’t solely based on what I can earn.  No matter what else occupies my days, those kinds of experiences will always be worthwhile.

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