Thursday, May 6, 2010

Pitching in, pitching out

I’m feeling entangled in deadlines and lists this week. My paid work is not the problem. Although I have four articles due for the Globe, an appendix to assemble on a master plan that a municipal client is about to submit, and an obligation to edit at least ten articles a day for an on-line editing site, I can do all of that. All of that is my job; I know how to get it done. It’s the volunteer work that’s bogging me down this week, and even keeping me awake at night.

The problem is so many of the functions that have value to me run largely on volunteer effort. I’m part of a church community, a school community, a civic community, an arts community, and all of those require a significant amount of participation from interested parties. But there are times, this week being one of them, when it just doesn’t seem to me like the system is working. Each of these institutions seems to need too much help, too much volunteer participation. Not only from me; from everyone involved.

In church, rather ironically, I’m on the Nominating Committee: the committee that identifies people willing to fill vacancies on other committees. So at the very same time that I’m soul-searching over the necessity and value of all this committee work and volunteer work, I’m trying to track down – and then persuade -- more volunteers to serve on more committees. Without all of us helping out, goes the traditional perspective, how will we put on a coffee hour every week after our service? How will we make decisions about building maintenance, and church funding, and Sunday school, and social action projects? It’s exhausting just to think about, let alone to find people willing to do all of these tasks.

At my children’s school right now, I’m co-chair of the June teachers’ appreciation luncheon. On the first Tuesday in June each year, the parents put on a lavish luncheon with a gorgeous array of homemade culinary offerings. I sent out the first batch of emails yesterday, imploring parents schoolwide to offer help in this yearly endeavor. But right now my spreadsheet is empty: I have to find fifteen people to make entrees, twenty to make salads, a dozen to make desserts, a few to provide paper goods, some to help with setup and serving and clean-up, and even two or three more to decorate the lunchroom ahead of time. Though I know every year it works out sufficiently, this is the part of the process when I’m close to hyperventilating with anxiety over whether we’re going to get the volunteer labor and the contributions we need.

It’s a frustrating dilemma to me. What would my life be like if I opted out of all of these volunteer obligations? I wouldn’t be part of as many groups or have as many friends. We live in a very close-knit community in which there’s always something to get involved and always people to share ideas with, if one is willing. But I can’t seem to find the balance, and neither can anyone else who serves in any of these functions with me.

Just today as I was trying to get a grasp on the various tasks I needed to attend to, I received an email from the president of our PTA asking if I wanted to help organize the semi-annual Walk to School Day. This is part of a statewide endeavor that our town has participated in for about three years: on a designated day in the fall and spring we raise a lot of publicity for the idea of walking to school, and then we set out making an event out of it. There are designated spots within a mile radius of the school for groups of kids with parent escorts to meet up. There are water stations and refreshments along the way, and as each walker arrives at school, he or she is given a little prize and a raffle ticket. Then there’s a big raffle with lots of big prizes.

I wrote back to the PTA president. “Couldn’t we make it simpler?” I asked her. “Have a Walk to School Day on which we skipped the refreshments and check-in stations and raffle tickets and prizes and just, you know, walked to school?”
That one seemed easy to solve. The others don’t lend themselves as well to an organic, “let’s just do it without making a production out of it” approach. We can’t invite 150 teachers and staff members to a luncheon and then just hope we get enough food and paper plates to make it work out.

I don’t know the answer. And for the next couple of weeks, I’ll still be waking up in the middle of the night worrying about whether we’re going to run out of desserts at the teachers’ luncheon and whether we found enough new members for the church’s Finance Committee to meet the requirements of our by-laws.

But I do think on Walk to School Day, my kids and I will just do that: walk to school. In a way, the idea of organizing this event seems like a perfect example of overkill when it comes to volunteer effort. Put one foot in front of the other. There, I’ve organized a Walk To School Day. Some things are just easy, and when they are, we’ll take advantage of them.

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