August 2, 2021

FTV: Volunteers of America


     While researching information about Woodstock, I hit upon a video of the Jefferson Airplane performing their song Volunteers.  Like any good earworm chorus, the ‘Volunteers of America’ got stuck in my head.  One thing led to another and the constant recycling of the lyric started touching off random memories connected with the word ‘volunteer’.  The Airplane were specifically singing about the political and social turmoil of the 1960s (‘Look what’s happening in the streets, counter-revolution, up the revolution’), thus the song was a call to arms for the younger generation.  To be a volunteer, one can make a difference without necessarily becoming (my apologies to Jefferson Airplane) a counter-revolutionary.

     When I was first approached to teach the Senior Service Project class before the 2013-14 school year, I didn’t have a clue what that would involve.  Up to that point, my teaching career had been confined to grades 6 through 9.  When Study Hall was still on the schedule, there were a few years when I was in the same room with students from the upper grades, but supervising a study hall isn’t the same as teaching a class.  Working with high school student volunteers in the WOAS-FM radio lab involved some training for new DJs, but it was never a graded class requiring the more traditional ‘lesson, test, evaluate, grade’ teaching format.  At the time I was introduced to the idea of teaching a class to inspire students to become the future ‘volunteers of America’, the first step was to examine my own history as a volunteer.  If one is going to impart the ‘joys’ of being a volunteer, one better be able to give some concrete examples.  Pointing the way like a general on a hill directing the battle lines where the actual fighting is taking place was never my style anyway (and yes, that statement should put a particular Pink Floyd lyric from Us and Them off of the Dark Side of the Moon album in your mind).

     In my course introduction, I wrote the following quote on the board:  “Some of the best jobs you will ever have in life will not be the ones you are paid for.”  When asked who they thought uttered these lines, guesses ranged from Albert (Einstein) to Zappa (Frank), but it was almost always attributed to someone famous.  I would then tell them this sage advice came from my father.  When I was very young, I remember dad telling me about the time he stood guard at the Michigan state capitol when a former governor was honored as he lay in state.  When I asked why he had to do this, he simply said, “I volunteered.  It was a great honor.”  That was the first time I remember learning about the concept of being ‘a volunteer’ and that is probably why my view of volunteering is connected with it being ‘an honor to serve’.  In all honesty, I would also tell them that the class was started because we were having a difficult time finding enough classes to fill our senior’s schedules.  By then, requiring students to do volunteer work for credit had also become a national trend in both public schools and universities.  It is an important method employed to teach students about social responsibility.  

     The way volunteer programs are handled varies widely from one institution to another.  Many opt for a ‘student directed approach’ where they identify a volunteer opportunity, conduct the project, and finally document their work.  The scope and length of the project is open ended, so once a student has done the three steps and their final report has passed muster, they are done.  Our system was a little less open ended.  We scheduled SSP like a class and gave students a full school year (as in 180 days) to fill.  There was also a stipulation that they should do projects involving volunteer work in both the school and the community.  These guidelines opened a can of worms for me:  with a vast number of project areas available, how would I be able to keep tabs on who was doing what for whom?  I consulted my daughter, Elizabeth (who was working on her PhD in English at UCLA at the time) hoping her work as a TA would provide me with a solution. I hit paydirt when she suggested students document their daily project work in journal form. 

     The format for journaling was standardized.  Each week, they would document their daily work.  If there was something else they had to do that wasn’t ‘project work’, I just asked them to be honest and write down how they spent their time.  Some kids had an easier time if they volunteered at a place like the Ontonagon County Animal Protection shelter (OCAP) or WOAS-FM.  The animals at the shelter don’t get days off and the radio station is on the air every day, so these volunteers had no problem filling out their journals.  If a student was performing shorter term projects, I asked them to document when they finished a project so the time between projects could be monitored.  The only ones who had difficulty were the ones who didn’t fill their journals out every couple of days.  It was always fun to walk into the library during the last week of the marking period when the procrastinators would be scratching their heads trying to remember what they had been doing several weeks earlier.  As expected, some entries were short to the point of telling me very little about what actually accomplished.  A few got into War and Peace length explanations, but for the most part, most were able to communicate what they were doing in a couple of lines per day.  

     Speaking of ‘communicating’, the other thing I stressed was ‘communication with the instructor’.  Unlike a class that would meet face to face each day, there were long stretches when I only saw them as they signed in before departing to their project sites.  To make sure we were in touch, I would provide them with bi-weekly memos to impart critical information.  The memos became part of their journals and those who actually read them had very few problems keeping their ‘grades’ up.  The SSP was a class required for graduation, but it was also a pass/fall class (meaning there were no letter grades, just a pass/no pass given that did not affect one’s GPA).  The marking periods were structured with between seven and ten ‘checkpoints’.  These were reviewed at periodic journal checks and also included special assignments like crafting a resume or personal statement.  If a student had 60% of their check points accounted for, they would pass, but they were encouraged to have 100%.  It was a bit of a bluff, but I would casually mention in a memo, “Okay, so you have a 4.0 GPA, but someone looks at your transcript and wonders why you ‘passed’ a required class doing the bare minimum 60 percent of the work.”  It was less a threat of failure than an appeal to their sense of wanting to maintain the image conveyed by a high GPA.

     Going all the way back to selling candy to help fund a high school band trip to march in a couple of parades at the Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Michigan, I have disliked fund raising.  The need to pay for buses used for the field trips we took from 1977 to my retirement left me with two choices.  The first was to sell things and the second was to simply charge each student the same amount like they would pay to see a movie.  It was a no brainer for me.  Early in my career, my second JH principal/counselor made an ill-advised purchase of school materials.  When the bill was due, he dipped into our student council war chest to pay for it.  This $2,000 debt dogged us into the early 1990s when we were given an ultimatum:  square this negative account – now- or else!  We were put in touch with an organization that helped school groups sell magazine subscriptions at a very attractive percentage of return.  We were debt free in the first year of this program and continued the annual sale until I retired.

     Coordinating the sale confirmed a pattern I had observed organizing the JH Student Council’s annual Halloween Carnival.  I repeated this observation to my JH students frequently and it also fit in nicely with the Senior Service volunteers.  What I told them, in rather round numbers, was:  “No matter what jobs or volunteer activities one engages in, you will find about 40 percent will take it seriously and do a great job, another 40 percent will do as little as possible, and the remaining 20 percent will do absolutely nothing.  In the end, the 60 percent who do not pull their own weight will still be there with outstretched palms waiting for their share (and probably complain the most about the ‘work’ they were forced to do).  Thank you to the 40 percent who go above and beyond to get things done, but get used to it because it will be a recurring theme you will experience again and again.”

     It was no big surprise when a similar pattern emerged in how my Senior Service classes attended to their duties, although the percentages would vary year to year.  The senior class my first year coordinating the program was a gem of a group with more ‘doers’ than average.  Unfortunately, they did not prepare me for the second class who flipped the numbers to the point they made me spend more time dogging their projects than some of them did.  The old detective gene my dad passed on served me well that second year.  After noticing the same group of guys signing out to do the same project for days on end, I decided it sounded like a fish-tale.  I took a spin around town and found a group of cars parked down by the river where their ‘work’ consisted of drinking coffee from the local gas station while listening to tunes on someone’s car stereo.  I drove around the little circle, stopped to take a couple of pictures, gave them a jaunty wave and headed back to school.

     The next week’s memo included photographic evidence of their little game and a whole new set of rules about how many bodies could be checked out to work on one project.  Verification from the site of the volunteer activity was also included.  While this was the only year that this form of purposeful inactivity was a problem, and sharing the tale with later classes (before anything like it happened again) no doubt acted as a sort of preemptive strike.  Instead of dwelling on the kids who were skittering by, it was more enjoyable to engage with the ones who enjoyed their projects.

     One of our most appreciative clients were the ‘cat people’ at the Ontonagon County Animal Protection (OCAP) shelter.  Until the COVID-19 disrupted year of 2020, there were always students willing to help the morning shift assisting the shelter’s cat volunteers.  Cats and dogs at the shelter do not get days off, so the volunteers there have daily responsibilities cleaning cages and socializing the critters.  The regular OCAP cat volunteers were delighted to have extra hands for the daily morning routine.  The first year, we worked with the shelter to arrange a little end of the year ‘thank you’ cake to share with the student volunteers.  This evolved into the student’s organizing a similar event for the OCAP regulars which both students and shelter volunteers enjoyed as the school year wound down.  The graduation cards and monetary donations collected at the shelter for these senior volunteers were a good indication how much their help was appreciated there.

     Personally, my favorite SSP volunteer activity was getting students involved in Michigan’s Adopt-A-Highway program.  When we applied for the 3.5 mile stretch of highway US 45 from Woodspur to the last old railroad crossing before Rockland, I figured we could do the pick up in one afternoon as long as we got at least six volunteers.  After the mandatory safety session, each pair of pickers were left off and instructed to work against traffic up the left side of the road.  When they reached the next volunteer group’s car, they would cross over and work their way back to their starting point.  This left the last half mile section for me to do with extra volunteers or solo.  This was the one project seniors were sent out to do where I would have been uncomfortable not overseeing them in person.  The bonus was getting to spend one beautiful afternoon each fall and spring outdoors doing my own volunteer stint.  The highway pickers got their own bonus:  they were told to report to my end of the route when finished.  After check in, they were directed to the Rockland General Store for a post clean-up ice cream (which half the time Tina donated to thank them for their efforts).

     Minutes from a recent school board meeting reported the Senior Service Project will no longer be a graduation requirement.  It will still be available as an elective so I hope there will be enough students taking it to carry on the US 45 A-A-H pick up.  The sign on either end of this stretch says ‘OASD Seniors’ on it so if SSP bodies are lacking, perhaps the senior class can fill the void.  Even if this community service doesn’t include a school credit, I will go back to my dad’s sage advice:  “Some of the best jobs you will ever have in life will not be the ones you are paid for.”  If there is one thing Ontonagon has always been known for, it is stepping up to the plate when things need to get done.  Not a bad legacy to pass on to future generations.

Top Piece Video:  Speaking of Jefferson Airplane . . .