Volunteering Finally, in 2021
It's been a long 18 months, of pandemic caution. I haven't volunteered with my usual "Around the Quilt" groups of kids and seniors, since March 2020.
I still am not able to return to my usual groups, because the facilities haven't opened up for volunteers yet. But I had an opportunity to help somewhere else on Tuesday.
In August, I studied the news and worried over heartbreaking scenes in Afghanistan. My daughter in law (who works with refugees through IRC, in Sacramento) gave me even more insight. When I heard that Afghan families were arriving in Houston, I hoped I could help.
I signed up for a Zoom volunteer info meeting, then rushed to get my background check and training records in order. Suddenly I was on a list to volunteer at a hotel in Houston, where 20 Afghan families were temporarily housed.
On Tuesday morning I headed into Houston. I knew I would be delivering meals to families. I was just showing up to help. I wasn't in charge. That was sort of a nice feeling. Usually my volunteering involves lots of planning and packing of props. All I had to pack up was a face mask.
This was a little scary. Who would I be communicating with? Would I be putting myself at risk for Covid exposure, after 18 months of caution? I let myself trust my vaccine. But then the freeway came to a halt. I was 40 minutes late when I arrived at the hotel.
Kids, Not Meals
I was feeling anxious when I rushed in the building. Who was I supposed to meet? Where was I to go? I was suddenly guided to a conference room, where about 20 elementary age children were seated at tables with paper and markers and stickers.
I was thrilled to be able to help with the kids, instead of meal delivery. For the next 3 hours, I helped out with 3 different groups of kids.
It was awkward at first. There were a few volunteers and one interpreter. The children spoke Farsi and I spoke English, with a mask covering my mouth. Oh how I longed for my quilt and all the props, that have helped me communicate with kids in the past. But I reminded myself, that I wasn't in charge. This wasn't my gig. I just wandered the room, showing encouragement when kids looked my way.
The older children seemed a little lost and timid, as they reached for the materials. But before long they began to draw and talk quietly. I tried to encourage without intruding. Who wants to draw with some adult breathing down your back? But I soon realized they could read my eyes and understand my short comments or questions. The younger children seemed much more comfortable reaching out for help. I was able to joke a little with them. I pointed to their pictures of ice cream cones or dinosaurs and pantomimed silly, 10 second stories. I began to feel like my old volunteer self.
Kids in Crisis
I've volunteered many times, with kids in crisis. For years I've gathered with children, housed at the local Women's Shelter. I've helped at temporary Houston shelters, where families have evacuated from hurricanes and floods.
Gathering with kids on the quilt has always felt like a cozy oasis. I've always packed puppets and paper and crayons and markers.
Some kids talk more comfortably, when their hands are busy. Sometimes kids draw, then end up sharing insight, with the images they draw.
Hearts and Rainbows
The kids on Tuesday, were very different than the others. Their art gave me no hints of what they might have dealt with when they escaped Afghanistan.
Maybe drawing hearts and houses and rainbows, was the fun escape, that many of these kids needed. Mostly their artwork was positive and bright. They may not have spoken English, but many knew the word LOVE.
What Did I Learn?
Over the years I've volunteered with lots of kids who don't speak my language. It's always been a challenge, but I've loved finding ways to use games and props, along with facial and body expression. On Tuesday, I learned just how exhausting it is to communicate without words and with only half a face showing! Thank goodness I've never had Botox or I might have had a harder time communicating with my eyes!
I guess this was a good reminder to me, of how difficult these 18 months have been for many! Healthcare workers, teachers, frontline workers... anyone and everyone who has dealt with the exhaustion, of masked communication.
Missing the Quilt
Now that I've stepped back into the world of volunteering, I'm eager to dust off the quilt. Oh how I wish I'd had it on Tuesday. I miss that old thing!
When Will I Volunteer Again?
During these past pandemic months, I've been looking forward to returning to my volunteer work, with kids and senior groups. It will be strange and wonderful to eventually gather around the old quilt again. I need to prepare myself for some rough restarts!
Volunteering with Refugees in 2017
Today, I'm remembering another time when I had a break from volunteering. It was nearly 5 years ago. I had sort of a failed attempt with my quilt.
It was February 2017 and I was just getting back to volunteering, after some time off with cancer. I had some big concerns about our new president and his words about immigrants. I knew Houston was a welcoming city and I wanted to help.
I found a Houston program that was reaching out, to support and educate immigrants. They needed someone to watch kids, while "Moms" took classes. Babysitting is not my thing, but I was happy to bring my quilt once a week and entertain, with some puppets and songs and games.
Minutes after arriving on that first day, the quilt became buried under toys and toddlers. The mothers were uneasy about leaving their kids with me. I didn't speak their language and I hadn't earned their trust.
I was in that room for only an hour, but it felt like days. Every trick that I've used as a teacher and mother in 40 years, seemed to fail. I was too busy to distract, with my playful songs and cheerful games. Too busy, snatching "choke hazards" out of toddlers' mouths and loosening little fists that held chunks of hair, or clobbered with toys. The stuffy room was hot and I worked up a good sweat, as I leapt from the floor numerous times to keep kids from escaping down the hall.
After 1 hour, the moms returned. The room was a mess and so was I. I returned the next week, thinking surely things would be better. But my quilt and I failed again and I wished them luck finding a new babysitter. I went back to my regular "Around the Quilt" program, with kids and seniors, at the places I loved and missed.
What Did I Learn?
Sometimes it's really good to allow yourself to quit. I don't do that often. I always feel if I just work hard enough, I can make it work. I could have demanded a helper and cleared that room of dangerous toys and learned how to communicate better with kids and moms. But I was too tired. I was still growing back hair and gaining new strength. It felt wonderful to step back and just say "No. I can't do this."
I guess this is sort of a good memory after all.
For 20+ years children have called it the Magic Quilt. They've danced and pretended all over these colorful squares. I've dragged it to schools, shelters and studios where children have climbed on top to hear Magic Quilt Stories and to act them out.