Get Out and Give Back: Zen Volunteering

by WL Author

Nonprofit Borromeo Housing helps young mothers and their children live independently
By Jane Hess Collins

Montana DeBor (left), Borromeo Housing's Volunteer Artist in Residence with Executive Director, Joy Myers at the 2011 Art Show reception.

Normally volunteer work entails lots of activity, people, energy and more often than not, chaos. What a nice change of pace it was to help out in Borromeo Housing’s infant care supply center, where it was just me and ten huge boxes of donated baby things that needed to be sorted and organized. My secret control-freak twin was ecstatic. It was like winning the OCD lottery.

Click on the “volunteer with us” links on nearly any nonprofit website and you’ll see a need for someone to help them organize. If the nonprofit supports people in need, there’s undoubtedly an overflowing closet somewhere filled floor to ceiling with black plastic bags and boxes. The nonprofit staff, stretched to capacity already, doesn’t have the luxury of idling away two or three hours a week to sort through clothes by size and gender, diapers by age and weight, furniture, toys and books.

As anyone who has ever had to find those items for a client can tell you, an organized, accessible supply closet is essential, and a rarity. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve torn through lawn-sized bags of donations labeled “girls’ clothes” looking for a size 6X summer dress, while the mother, and dozens of other mothers behind her, waited impatiently. More often than not, the dress was hidden among the winter coats and summer shorts, and I never found it. The only difference after my search mission was that the supply closet now looked like a thunderstorm of little-girl clothes had rained over the entire room.

Organizing the closet was an unexpected treat for two reasons. First, it’s a task that offers solitude, concentration and focus. Introverts are in their sweet spot. Extroverts can shift their overactive brain cells to idle. Second, I knew what a gift an organized supply closet is to a nonprofit, even if it only lasts until the next donation arrives. Still, it’s gratifying to know you are offering a tremendous service to both the organization and the client.

As I separated toddler corduroy overalls from infant bathing suits into neat little doll baby piles I faced another common problem for most nonprofits. The size and amount of the donations exceed the storage space. It reminded me of high school when nine of us would try to fit into a Volkswagen.  After the diapers were neatly housed on their shelves by size and the toddler clothes were safely tucked away in labeled plastic bins, there were still an overflow of strollers and toys piled up on the counter. There was no other place to put them.

Nonprofit supply organization is not a completely peaceful experience, but it’s the closest you’ll ever get.

Still, Borromeo Housing makes it work. Most of their efforts are focused on teaching life skills and independent living to young mothers, who are either self-referred or sent by another agency. They operate a residential care program-a four-bedroom home in Arlington and two apartments-where moms and kids may stay for up to two years as they work, finish school, attend job training and learn how to live on their own. The mothers do all of the cooking and cleaning, and the home was remarkably clean and tidy for a place with three babies and a toddler.

Still, Borromeo Housing needs volunteers to help with yard work and minor home repairs, and a child care provider to watch the kids in the home’s playroom when the moms attend in-home group programs this September.

If you have your own closet full of out-grown baby items, Borromeo Housing has a waiting list for strollers, Pack ‘n Plays and diapers, especially sizes 4-6 and pull-ups.

Finally, if you crave solitude, Borromeo Housing’s infant care supply center needs a steady stream of helpers to re-organize as donations pour in and clothes and diapers pour out.

Volunteering has never been so peaceful.

Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her volunteering, writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. You can follow her other Get Out and Give Back volunteer stories on Facebook, Twitter and on her website.

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