A couple of years ago an icemaker water-supply line sprung a leak under my house. Such a tiny thing. Surely I could fix this with my Time-Life book on basic plumbing and a little luck. I turned the water off at the street and crawled under the house. And I couldn't quite stop the drip. So for three days, I showered at a neighbor's house, came home from work, and crawled under the house for yet another attempt to lick the leak. On the fourth day I called a plumber.
That experience made me wonder: If the average volunteer for Habitat for Humanity or Service Over Self has no more handyman skills than I have, why don't more of those houses they build fall down? It turns out that those organizations have skilled leaders who know how to make repairs but also have the patience to explain to volunteers how to do it. It works brilliantly. So I say, if you want to learn home repair, why experiment on your own house? Learn from the pros, and perfect your skills on somebody else's.
George Plimpton, one of my journalistic heroes, practiced what came to be called "participatory journalism." In a variation on that theme, I have spent the last 18 years or so doing "participatory living." I have repaired sheetrock at Girls Inc., painted at a Boys & Girls Club and myriad schools, built wheelchair ramps through MIFA's Handyman program, served meals at St. Vincent DePaul soup kitchens, erected a fence at DeNeuville Learning Center, run festival logistics at Memphis Botanic Garden, installed shelving at Holy Names Jubilee School, learned machete handling and emergency lawn mower repair in the jungles of Zion Cemetery, and perfected the art of loading canned food on a flatbed trailer at the Memphis Food Bank without having any (well, not too many) tumble into the street.
Except for splinters, cuts, bruises, sunburn, drenchings in sudden downpours, flat tires, and torn clothing, it has all been great fun. Call me crazy, but I would much rather build a wheelchair ramp in half a day than spend two days on a beach. The ramp will give a disabled person a chance to escape a house fire; the beach will depress me because I am stout and pasty (and leave me sunburned after half a day).
In the years after college, I spent a lot of time going to Thursday-night rooftop parties and other watering holes where I met hundreds of people and have kept in touch with one or two. In a few years of volunteering — serving on boards, working on committees, or just being a regular lift-and-tote volunteer — I have met hundreds of people, and I still remain in touch with, well, hundreds of them. The connection is simply stronger.
Not only have I been to Beltline, Orange Mound, Mallory Heights, Hyde Park, and Klondyke, where I normally might not venture, but I have met people there, talked to them, and been in their homes. Getting out of my own Zip code to learn that all people in all neighborhoods hate litter, burglaries, and violence has been an eye-opener and a blessing.
I've been privileged to meet some local visionaries. Marlon Foster grew up in Fowler Homes public housing but found a way out through a college education. Only he didn't leave. Fowler took a stand, founding KnowledgeQuest as a program for positive after-school activities in the very projects he grew up in. Similarly, Reginald Milton came back to South Memphis; he left a career in banking to found the South Memphis Alliance, a coalition of neighborhood asso-ciations working together to strengthen their community. And there's Mary Claire Giffin, who spends her spare time arranging theater productions starring developmentally disabled people, giving them the opportunity to write and act and generally show amazing talent.
While volunteering on different projects can put you in touch with all sorts of different people, so can working on the same project. For more than five years I've chopped weeds, cleared brush, and straightened markers in the horribly overgrown Zion Cemetery, with its 22,000 neglected graves. I've worked beside volunteers from Rhodes College, LeMoyne-Owen, UTCHS, Kent State, Memphis University School, Sheffield Middle School, with church mission groups from Texas, with court-ordered community service "volunteers," with Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopals, CMEs, and probably agnostics and atheists. What other project in this city has ever brought together such a diverse array of people working for a common cause?
Volunteering can be structured or in-formal. Basically anything you do to help someone else counts. The key is finding opportunities that interest you and trying them out. The episodic, team-based opportunities found at www.handsonmemphis.org are an excellent way to "test drive" a nonprofit agency by committing to a single three-hour project. A longer list of referral opportunities can be found at www.volunteermemphis.org. Of course, you may find an opportunity to serve by talking to your best friend's uncle in a grocery checkout line. But wherever you find the opportunity, give it a try. It'll change your life in a good way. It certainly did mine.
Finding Your Path
Volunteering means different things to different people. Ultimately it is about community — define that as you will — and your place in it. When you find your volunteering niche, you'll enjoy it as much or more than any hobby or vacation. You'll have a sense of accomplishment, you'll feel good about helping other people, you'll meet other nice volunteers, you'll gain valuable insights into community issues, you might learn a handy bit of carpentry or some other skill, may even bolster your resume, and you could learn about career options in nonprofit organizations. That's not a bad list.
Finding your volunteering niche will take some thought. Some questions for self-assessment of your volunteering prospects would include:
• Do you want a regularly scheduled volunteer shift or do you need a flexible schedule?
• Are you willing to go through training or get shots?
• Are you available during normal business hours or are nights and weekends better?
• What kind of causes most interest you: literacy, substandard housing, hunger and homelessness, abused children, animals, elderly care, neighborhood revitalization?
• Can you work directly with sick children or homeless people without crying or do you need to be a behind-the-scenes person?
• Do you want to use the same skills you use every day at the office or do you want to learn something different?
• Are you looking for a faith-based outreach or a secular opportunity to serve?
• Do you prefer to find a task to tackle on your own or do you enjoying working with a group?
By considering these questions, you'll be better able to deal with the countless volunteer opportunities available in Memphis. After all, there are more than 1,300 nonprofit organizations in Shelby County, and that doesn't include informal neighborhood organizations, traditional service clubs, church and synagogue outreach programs, and people just helping people. These are some broad categories and some samples in each to consider.
The big names. These would include St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and MIFA Meals on Wheels.
Umbrella organizations. MIFA has a Handyman program for building wheelchair ramps and other small-scale home repairs for the elderly and disabled. And MIFA has several other opportunities from teaching life skills to sorting donations to helping in the thrift shop. Other organizations with subsidiary programs include BRIDGES and the Memphis Leadership Foundation.
Empowerment programs. The RISE Founda-tion helps low-income people learn about financial management. DeNeuville Learning Center helps single mothers obtain GEDs. The Memphis Literacy Council helps individuals learn to read and/or increase comprehension.
Mentoring. Youth Villages needs adults to mentor emotionally troubled, neglected, or developmentally disabled youths. Big Brothers & Big Sisters, Girls Incorporated, Boys & Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts also need mentoring volunteers.
Preservation and History. History buffs should consider Memphis Heritage, the West Tennessee Historical Society, and the Nineteenth Century Club.
Sports programs. Memphis Athletic Min-istries needs volunteers with knowledge of sports to coach, referee, and organize events.
Special events. Just how many 5K runs are there in Shelby County? Most benefit some charity and all of them need volunteers to help with registration, water stations, course and site setup/breakdown, and more. And community events such as Memphis in May, Africa in April, the Mid-South Music & Heritage Festival, Italian Fest, Juneteenth, and others would not run without the volunteers who fuel them.
Good old-fashioned civics. Become a poll worker, donate blood, organize nonpartisan voter-registration drives, and participate in your Neighborhood Watch.
Traditional service clubs. Rotary, Kiwanis, Optimist, Lions, Jaycees, and Exchange, like the Energizer Bunny, just keep going and going and going; they work on local projects and also participate in large national and international initiatives.
The next generation. Mpact, New Path, 100 Black Men, and Tha Movement are engaging young people in the community in significant ways.
Animals. Memphis Humane Society, House of Mews, Tom's Town, and Sunny Meadows all need volunteers to walk dogs, feed cats, clean cages, and much more.
Nonprofit Media. WKNO TV and FM needs scores of volunteers over the course of the year to answer phones, help with special events, run the auction checkout, and more. WEVL Community Radio has similar needs. Almost all smaller nonprofit organizations need volunteers with public relations, marketing, and advertising skills to turn a small (or non-existent) budget into a big message.
Environment. The Sierra Club, Wolf River Conservancy, and more are involved in everything from advocacy to cleanups.
Neighborhoods. These include Glenview, Mallory Heights, the David Street Block Club, the Barksdale/Cloverdale Association, the Memphis Ten Point Coalition, the South Memphis Alliance, and many, many more. Some are organized as CDCs (community development corp-orations) and some as simple neighborhood associations, but all need the involvement of area residents.
Faith–based. These include the Neighbor-hood Christian Center, Streets Ministries, Emmanuel Episcopal Center, Memphis Athletic Ministries, all of the "soup kitchens," Memphis Ten Point Coalition, and Temple Israel's Mitzvah Day.
Arts. The Greater Memphis Arts Council needs event volunteers, as do many of the agencies. Most theater companies need ushers and backstage help, as do the Blues Foundation, and the Jazz Foundation of the Mid-South.
This is just a tip-of-the-iceberg listing. So where can you look beside Google or the Yellow Pages to find even more opportunities? The recently merged organizations — Volunteer Memphis and Hands on Memphis — are a tremendous portal to service opportunities. From ongoing individual opportunities to episodic group projects to special community forums, you'll find your way into the community of service by visiting www.volunteermemphis.org or www.handsonmemphis.org.
Ken Hall is executive director of the Cotton Museum. He served for six years as executive director of Hands on Memphis and served on the national board of City Cares (now Hands on Network).