Monday, June 15, 2009

Volunteering: The Job that Pays in Doughnuts

Volunteer Shelagh Shapiro sent us these thoughts about volunteering at VPR:

When people ask me what I do, a question which is perhaps an unfortunate fallout of living in a world where one must DO something quantifiable in order to be counted, I most often start by saying I work at VPR. Achieving the intended reaction from the other person—that incredulous look of joy and fascination—I stumble over myself with the apologetic explanation: “I’m a volunteer.” Apologetic not because I regret what I do, but because, again, if we don’t earn our keep in a quantifiable way, do we exist?

Before I began to work here (as a volunteer), I got to know the voices. Mitch Wertlieb, Walter Parker, Cheryl Willoughby, Neal Charnoff, Bob Kinzel. I knew them just as you do, and shared a unique, if one-sided, relationship with each of them. Back then the term “VPR studios” evoked my own personal Charlie Bucket, standing outside the gates of the Wonka Factory. What in the world goes on in there? Not that “no one ever goes in, and no one ever comes out," but it’s radio, so we don’t see it. It’s magic, really, what happens inside.

Eventually, an opportunity arose for me to become a VPR volunteer. It was an opportunity that had existed all along, only I hadn’t known it. (I’m tempted here to go into a whole ruby slippers tangent, but I already got away with the Charlie Bucket thing, so no.) I told them about my background in writing and public relations, from when I used to work for real, and VPR showed me to a desk that sported the nameplate George Thomas. George Thomas! Well for heaven’s sake; I knew him. Wow. Small world.

I’ve been a VPR volunteer for two years now. The people here give me work to do, I do it, they say nice things and give me other work to do. It’s a bit like a job. It is. It is a job. I work at VPR. This means there’s always music or news or an interesting interview playing through speakers. It means I can wander down the hall, peek through sound-proof windows, and watch Jane Lindholm interview Bernie Sanders or Peter Galbraith or Vermont lawyers who represent Guantanamo detainees. I can watch Joe Goetz introducing Suite #2 from the incidental music to Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg. Also, the studios are the radio equivalent of Wonka’s chocolate factory. No Everlasting Gobstoppers, but frequent doughnuts.

My relationships with the VPR hosts are no longer one-sided. Walter Parker rides a motorcycle. Cheryl Willoughby is an amazing photographer. Neal Charnoff loves movies. Mitch Wertlieb’s daughter is turning one soon. Who knew? It’s like they’re real people. And the other real people, the ones behind the scenes, work hard to bring public radio to Vermont. They welcome assistance and encourage input. Even from volunteers.

All of which makes me wonder if I should stop apologizing. I work at VPR, which means I work for Vermont. Contributing ideas, energy and time to enhance my favorite place. In return, VPR rewards me with a life that is that richer, fuller.

So if I don’t earn my keep here in a specifically quantifiable way, do I exist? In fact, I do.

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