Sure, I can help you with that.
As American Flatbread prepares to celebrate their 30th anniversary by throwing a huge party for those who volunteer in our community, I thought it might be a good moment to think about those who volunteer, and what they mean to communities like ours.
I moved to the Mad River Valley because I felt an immediate connection to the place on my first visit while I was in College. Some friends had moved here, I visited a few times, and the next thing I knew, I was living here. Initially I didn’t give an awful lot of thought to what it was about this place that I loved so much. On the surface it was clear – I loved skiing, and there was a lot of great skiing here. I grew up canoeing, and there was terrific paddling everywhere you looked. I was learning to mountain bike, and sure enough, a growing community of mountain bikers existed here. Check. check. check.
But this was the most unique place I had ever lived, yet there is skiing and mountain biking everywhere. What made this place so great? I suppose at the time it may have been that it was the first place I had ever lived where people were different than where I grew up. They were people who chose the outdoors over the indoors, put recreation and lifestyle before career, accepted that one may need to work a few jobs in order to commit to that healthy outdoor lifestyle over all else. Where I came from people thought I was a nut for mountain biking on the towns manicured walking trails. Skiing and canoeing were just not things most people from suburban NJ give much thought to.
And then I met my future wife. I convinced her that this was a place she should move, and she agreed. We got married, bought a house, got a dog. I worked at the ski area, Sarah worked locally too. We had two kids. And then my phone rang during dinner one evening and by the next day, I would have my answer. A friend was asking if I could come down and umpire a Little League baseball game. The ump was stuck somewhere, and they were going to forfeit the game. I said sure and hopped in the car, giving little thought of the challenge that lay ahead for me.
Now let me tell you something about umpiring a little league game. Anything can happen. Anything. I’ve seen games where both pitchers had no-hitters going and the score was 9-8. The permutation of events that can occur during the course of 6 innings on a Thursday evening at the ball field are limitless. Until you have stood behind the plate for such an event, you just don’t know what stress is. There’s a lot to keep track of. And everything matters to these kids. Everything. There are rules, and decisions to make; lots of decisions, and they all matter. Kids are running everywhere, coaches, kids and parents are yelling, and suddenly three kids are sliding into the same base and everyone is looking at you. The Ump. It may have been the most stressful experience I had encountered at that point in my life. And I remember thinking clearly that night that you couldn’t pay me enough to do THAT again.
The umpire showed up in the 4th inning, and when I handed the mask and shin guards over to him he looked at me in a ‘it’s-hard-to-find-good-help-these-days’ sort of way and said “volunteers, what do you do”? I looked at him incredulously and said “YOU VOLUNTEER FOR THIS!!” to which he said “Of course. You don’t think they can PAY someone, do you?” It never occurred to me.
But then I started to take notice. In the fall, all those hundreds of kids on the soccer field. They got there because someone organized it. And the coaches. They answered the phone and said sure. And the film festival that I went to for years – a fundraiser for a pre-school, organized by parents who were hoping that their small contribution will change someone’s life for the better. Fayston School’s Vermonte Carlo and Waitsfield‘s Ski and Skate Sale – PTO events to raise money for the Elementary Schools; all volunteers – parents and teachers – committed to helping preserve programs that make our schools and communities unique; parents putting up posters around town, and hauling wheel barrels of clay and mulch so that their kids have some of the nicest fields in the state to play on. The teachers and parents who volunteer after school for Girls on the Run, helping pre-adolescent girls develop healthy emotional lifestyle choices, that will help them grow into strong, individual women. The coaches and kids who sell raffle tickets after school. The Rotarians committed to serving their communities. Fireman who run into burning homes; ambulance attendants who save lives; School board members who spend hours out of their months making really hard decisions that affect people’s lives and livelihoods. The list goes on and on. It’s almost as if the volunteer is what keeps this community going. And it struck me that maybe this was so. Maybe this is what makes communities like our different. Maybe it’s what defines our communities.
Life is full, and it’s not always easy to say yes. Everyone has a different tolerance for how much time they can give. There are those who identify with who they are by what they do for a living and there are those who define who they are by what they do before and after work. And I doubt that anyone judges a person by how much or how little they give of that time. But we live in a tough world. We have people and organizations around us that rely on the hand of the volunteer to nurture and foster their growth, to help them remain pertinent in an increasing competition for the time and money that a dwindling pool of donors can provide. So next time someone asks if you have time to volunteer, try not to think about how little time you have, rather how much you can give. Try not to think of why you can’t do it, but why you can. Try to think about how you can make it fit INTO your schedule rather than how it will adversely affect your schedule. Try to think what our little slice of paradise would be like if everyone said sure instead of “I’ll think about it”.
I’ll see you on Saturday night!