Opinion: The Volunteering Paradox


Joyce Ng is a senior English major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater.  Contact her at [email protected].

Joyce Ng

On a Friday morning two weeks ago, I stumbled groggily out of bed at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m. because I had promised to accompany my friend to Kent Social Services at 9 a.m. to volunteer. As I wrapped silverware in paper napkins in the heavy morning silence, I wished I could watch a YouTube video on how to wrap silverware properly, and felt noble for giving up my precious Friday morning sleep. Almost immediately, I felt disgusted with my self-righteousness.

My first experience with volunteering was at a nearby learning center for the mentally disabled. This center got an influx of volunteers every day because my school required us to complete 10 hours of volunteer work.

The teacher always struggled to come up with things for us to do. We showed up in large groups at a time, all of us obviously not really wanting to be there. It was apparent that she was never happy to see us. She had to constantly come up with tasks for a bunch of awkward teenagers to do.

We were probably a bigger nuisance than help, as none of us were trained to work with the mentally disabled. All we could do were menial tasks such as tearing up old magazines. This was when I first started developing my skepticism toward volunteering. My friends told me that the school made this volunteering a requirement so that we could boost our resumes for our college applications.

I really disliked the idea of volunteering for the sole purpose of having something to put on paper, because it ceases to be volunteering when it’s a requirement. I’ve constantly felt pressure to be involved in some form of volunteering just so those hours can make me look like a better person on paper. If I volunteer with that as a primary purpose, then volunteering starts to lose its power and meaning — it becomes self-serving.

At the same time, my experience with the learning center has caused me to question the worth of a volunteer if it is simply a short-term commitment. How much can an untrained person contribute in just about any volunteer setting? I feel like I spent more time that morning at Kent Social Services learning the ropes of how everything works than actually helping them out. In order for my service to them to be effective, I have to be a volunteer who comes back week after week.

Being a consistent volunteer does not only make your service efficient     — it also allows you to actually get to know the patrons of the organization, which I believe has far more power to impact than washing dishes and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I’m not down playing the importance of these physical tasks. They are difficult, tiring and necessary.

However, showing a genuine interest in what someone has to say just might be more urgent.