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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Confessions of a Selfish Volunteer

Photo by Michael Prince for Windrush Farms.

I'll admit it. I am a selfish volunteer.

Websters cites the definition of volunteer as follows:

1. a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking.
2. a person who performs a service willingly and without pay.

Implicit in the act of volunteering is some form of giving. Campaigns to conscript volunteers dig their emotional hooks into the guilt of the gifted. "Give back," they implore, as if a person somehow has too much good and needs to siphon off the surplus to balance the world's ills. Even the definition above implies all of the action, and therefore benefit, is one sided. "Undertaking," to me, is too close to "undertaker." The dead aren't exactly known for being active participants in their final repose. 

Volunteers may be giving their time without pay, but they are getting something back in return. A feeling of accomplishment or a sense of being a part of a community are worthy in and of themselves. Being engaged in bettering our world by contributing to our neighbor's happiness is a beautiful act of humanity. If this is where the return on the investment of time stopped, most people would end the day happy, and rightly so.

The picture above is from one of my many Wednesday mornings I spend volunteering as a horse handler at Windrush Farm, a therapeutic riding center near my home in Massachusetts. I started volunteering there because I'm a horse lover without a horse and I missed the interaction of being around my four-legged friends. Serendipity paired me with the woman in the photo, I'll call "K."

K's body and brain cannot quickly process the commands required to ride a horse safely in all situations. She has certain capabilities and the horse has certain needs. I assist with the horse only enough to allow her as much autonomy as possible. In the two years we have worked together, she has ridden independently for the first time by walking a large circle with me at its center, without a leadline or sidewalker. It might not seem like much, but for us, we reached the summit of a mountain, together.

This is where most stories of "feel good volunteering" would end. Mine would, too, if it weren't for K.

Earlier this summer, K reached out to me on my Facebook author page. Before this, I had only been the horse handler she knew from the stable, but she learned that I also write. Inspiration took a hold of her, and she wrote a short story about a horse named Evan. Evan, as you may have guessed, is the horse pictured above with us. She asked if I would like to read it and invited me to her home.

At close to fifty years old, that was the first short story K had ever written.

Even as I write those words, I am humbled. Some Wednesday mornings, when it was too cold or too rainy, I wanted to stay warm and dry in my writerly cocoon. The spur to get me moving was K. I knew she would be there and would greet me with that thousand watt smile. K's smile, her joyous spirit, and her infectious positivism have given me more than I can articulate. 

And then she wrote a story.

I am no longer giving my time to K or Windrush. I am taking. I am taking inspiration and a feeling I can do anything because I have seen what a positive spirit can accomplish. I am taking back the power that limitations placed on my life because I have seen how barriers do not exist if you do not let them hobble you. I am taking back the selflessness I began with at Windrush and replacing it with selfishness. My Wednesday mornings with K are MY time, and you're not allowed to interfere.

So there you have it. My confession. In full.

I am a selfish volunteer.