Volunteering On My Own Terms

By Erika Hoffman

Volunteering On My Own Terms

When my kids were in elementary school, I noticed that many other moms were good bakers and brought treats to school on a regular basis. I couldn’t compete. I’m no Martha Stewart. Several were adept at craft projects. Again, Martha and I were worlds apart. Nor did I care to be a go-for, whose duty was mostly to stand at the Xerox machine running off copies of worksheets for teachers. I didn’t want to dig up flower beds at the front of the school beautifying the grounds. Nor did I wish to tutor on a one-on-one basis in some out-of-the-way closet.

Before I had my own children, I taught French 1 and high school English. Creating lesson plans was more up my alley than supplying youngsters with treats. So, I decided to use my teaching skills to present units to classes on a weekly basis. First, I needed to discover what interested my own kids and then determine if that was also what interested their peers. Next, I’d have to find out whether the subject intrigued the teacher enough for her to allow me to take over her class twice a week for 30 minutes to impart a fun learning experience.

All of this took place in the days before computers became commonplace! So having a different face in the room was somewhat entertaining to the kids in itself. My first foray into volunteering occurred in my oldest son’s kindergarten class. He liked dinosaurs. Not surprisingly, many of the five year olds did. Therefore, I versed myself in the habits of dinos, knowledge of dinos that kindergarteners would understand and dino lore. I bought plastic models, drawing books and easy readers. Each time I appeared we studied a new dino and colored a picture of him or her in all sorts of rainbow hues, which I reasoned might not be historically inaccurate because no one has recovered the skin of these prehistoric dragons. Only bones, tracks and fossilized eggs! So pink Stegosauruses were all right by me!

As my own kids advanced through school, I changed what I taught. When my second son was in first grade and my oldest in third, I began a unit on the U.S. Presidents. I started that off by giving the kids coins. We studied the penny and made a rubbing of it, and then I told them some facts about Abe Lincoln. Then I handed them a nickel, and we did the same. Then a dime, a quarter, a half dollar. Soon they knew fun facts about Thomas Jefferson, FDR, Washington and JFK. And even more important to them, they now had some cash for ice cream in the cafeteria. One day I brought in a Teddy Bear, and we learned about the 26th President. A bag of peanuts for each kid introduced Jimmy Carter. A Baby Ruth candy bar was the hook to learn about Grover Cleveland, the only Prez whose wife gave birth to a baby while her husband served in the White House. The Clevelands named her Ruth, and Mars Candy Company named the candy after her. By the end of the year, most of the class could recite the presidents in order up to George Herbert Bush. They had a time line of American History. And these pint sized scholars knew trivia with which to stump their parents!

As my four children proceeded through school, I’d switch curricula. Somewhat of a Francophile, I spent a year teaching fourth and fifth graders common French expressions as well as showing them all the French words they use regularly, although unaware of their being French. So, we compiled books of words, like menu, soupe du jour, quiche. And we cooked French food. And we learned a little history about the French folks who contributed to our American history, like Lafayette, Jacques Cartier and La Salle. We collected postcards from American cities such as New Orleans, where French culture influenced architecture, cuisine and language. Playing Bingo in French or singing “Frere Jacques” or acting out certain “faux pas” of culture misunderstandings became a break from the students’ usual routine.

Although I recommend volunteering, I have a caveat. A soul has to do something that she enjoys or else the giving of one’s time for free becomes burdensome and boring despite good intentions.

In my case, I had to find something in which I was versed, enthusiastic and willing to commit hours to — on a regular basis. If I hadn’t been passionate about my “charity chore,” my volunteering would have been short lived. One year I received a plaque naming me “Volunteer of the Year.” That acknowledgment might seem like a minuscule reward for the time commitment; however, for me it was satisfying. It made me realize that sometimes one can convey passion that becomes contagious. That contagion makes others recognize your work as a worthy contribution.

So, if baking cupcakes is not your cup of tea, explore your fortes and approach the person in charge with a simple proposal. Say: “This is my plan. Do you need a person who …..” Often, the answer will be a resounding “YES!” And you’ve killed two birds with one stone — you get to do a job you enjoy while you help someone be exposed to something he might not have experienced had you not possessed the courage to state frankly: “Here’s what I’d like to do as a volunteer project. Can you use me?”

About this writer

  • Erika Hoffman Erika Hoffman views most travel experiences as educational experiences and sometimes the lessons learned are revelations about oneself.

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19 Responses to “Volunteering On My Own Terms”

  1. Leona says:

    Those were some lucky kids. Bet they have fun these years later impressing their peers at parties with things they still remember from childhood. How could they forget about Baby Ruth Cleveland?

  2. Richard Knowles says:

    This is an enlightening piece. The author shines a light on what should be obvious but often isn’t – tailor your volunteer efforts to something you’re good at and have a passion for. Settling for anything less is a recipe for shortchanging the recipients of your efforts as well as yourself.

  3. Lots of good advice offered here in a charming read. I enjoyed the author’s breezy style. And she has the true heart of a teacher!

  4. Sheila Mann says:

    Great idea. This is motivating. Thanks for the tips and such a cute story of your unique classroom experiences.

  5. Barbara Margolis says:

    Erika Hoffman has accomplished another act of public service by writing about the virtues of volunteerism and encouraging others to do the same. Students need exposure to people from all walks of life and to subjects not always part of the curriculum. A great reminder that everyone has something to contribute!

  6. I’ve learned to spot Erika Hoffman’s name in your delightful publication. Going to her articles always brings a smile to my face, often several times. Her style is warm, casual, and smooth flowing. I love these ideas for her volunteer teaching!

  7. Claire Walker says:

    Great advise, fun to read!

  8. I have tried volunteering without much success, and this article has helped me to understand why. I think that I have not found something that I really can get excited about. One mistake about volunteering, that I have made, is going back to the same thing that I have always done. This makes me think something new to me would be better. This also helps me to see what a difference good volunteers can make!

  9. Dallas Swan says:

    This was a fun, as well as helpful article. I too have had so many different volunteer experiences that became boring because they didn’t use my passion. l am going to think of a way to use my talents (as few as they are) to make a difference. I love what you did to volunteer!

  10. Rose Ann says:

    Oh, I miss those days, and you are absolutely right–you have to know and enjoy your subject to effectively impart your knowledge. Great essay!

  11. Erika Hoffman says:

    Appreciate the compliment!

  12. Marilyn Acker says:

    What a good reminder that we all have something we love to share with others. As a young mother, I did the typical ‘cupcake’ volunteering. Once I even demonstrated macrame (remember that?) Now as a grandmother I’m sure I have something I could share with growing minds. Maybe beach life where I live and find starfish, crabs, clams and see dolphins regularly! Thanks Erika for the motivation!

  13. Becky R. Santora says:

    Erika Hoffman’s essay brings to mind the many years I too volunteered. With forty years of experience, and a true love of pottery, a session always ended with me learning from the students.
    Erika is as creative teacher. Teaching is her art. Let’s hope she continues to share her passion for many years.

  14. Diane Kirkman says:

    I so enjoyed Erika’s piece about fulfilling volunteering. I think in all areas of our lives if we can find the thing that charges us up and gives us joy, those that we share those things with can see and feel them too. Thanks Erika for thinking outside the traditional school box and showing us that we can do it too. Not only do we benefit, but importantly, so do the recipients of our efforts.

  15. As a veteran teacher, I can attest to the benefits of having a volunteer who makes learning fun with enrichment activities. Kudos to you.

  16. Janey W. says:

    I love your honesty. As a prior volunteer instructor, thank you!

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