This article is part of a series at Engaging Volunteers that shares our reflections from the National Conference on Volunteering and Service on June 6-8, 2011 in New Orleans.
I’ve always found it curious that while thousands of leaders in the world of volunteering convene at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service each year, we generally spend most of our time at the conference sitting in sessions listening to people talk.
While this is certainly valuable in terms of professional development and capacity building, there’s definitely something lacking in terms of walking the walk. That’s why I was thrilled to participate in a real-life service project on the first day of NCVS, this year June 6-8 in New Orleans.
The project involved neighborhood park restoration and playground builds at four different sites around New Orleans. I signed up for the “Signature NCVS Project Site” at Sam Bonart Playground in the Lower Ninth Ward. According to the description of the project given on the NCVS site, Sam Bonart is the only public park in this area, in which a quarter of the households have an annual income of less than $10,000.
We waited for about half an hour on Monday morning, June 6th as the crew at NCVS got the few hundred or so of us organized into somewhat tidy lines by project location. After some reminders about sunscreen and water and some waiver-signing, we loaded the buses and were off.
Never having been to New Orleans, I couldn’t take in our surroundings fast enough as we drove through. Entering the Ninth Ward was jarring – buildings that looked condemned were clearly being lived in, and on many of them you could see the stains and discoloration as a clear line marking where the water had risen during the flooding, sometimes higher than the height of an adult person. What is life like here, I wondered.
We were dropped off right by the entrance to a large fenced-in field of grass. Sam Bonart Playground, minus one playground. A man got on the bus and explained that we were to go stand in front of a small raised platform that had been set up at one end of the field. Any questions? What was the history of this area? someone asked. The man didn’t know anything about the area.
We got off the bus, and were immediately bombarded by the intense wet heat that settles over New Orleans in the summer. I was glad I’d worn shorts and a baseball cap. As we stood in the sun, a total of six people in various important positions at the government of New Orleans, Points of Light Institute and HandsOn New Orleans got up to thank us and thank each other and thank the people of New Orleans. While I appreciated the gratitude and the fact that members of both the New Orleans Saints and the Hornets had shown up, I was restless to begin moving and working.
Based on labels on our nametags, we were divided efficiently into work groups, and I was assigned to the Gazebo Group. We were led by a young guy named Patrick over to a small clearing next to the basketball court with six wooden posts already fixed into the ground. The beginning of our gazebo.
About five feet away a newly renovated pool was filled with water and empty of people – Mayor Landrieu had explained to us that it was one of several public pools to be opened around the city just that day, for the first time since Katrina. I couldn’t believe that a city as hot and humid as New Orleans lived for six years without any public pools. Somehow I doubted anyone had been able to take a dip in the Mississippi River to cool off.
There were about eight women in the Gazebo Group, plus Patrick, and none of us did construction work in our spare time (except Patrick, who actually runs a tool library for HandsOn New Orleans). But Patrick had instructions, and he was great at breaking down the tasks that needed to be done into steps. Soon we were using the electric drill and climbing ladders like pros.
As we worked the sun slowly climbed higher and neighborhood kids started showing up to watch, to play and to swim in the pool. We darted longing glances at their splashing games of Marco Polo. It was hot, it was dirty, and it was sweaty, but after three hours we’d almost completed a pretty good-looking wooden gazebo that would provide shade to those hanging by the pool or the basketball courts.
After another half a dozen speeches, we loaded the buses and were on our way back to the NCVS convention center. Our project was done, and with it our in-the-field service experience for the conference.
How did I feel about my volunteering experience? There was a definite feeling of accomplishment – not just from what I did with the Gazebo Group, but from looking around at the awesome playground, the colorful benches and the fun murals that had popped up around the park in the three hours we were there. As a group we’d really transformed it.
Added to that, I’d had a ton of fun with my Gazebo Group gal pals. We laughed and dropped things and got dirty together, and the teamwork element definitely enriched the experience, as did the empowerment of a short girl with a desk job climbing a tall ladder and wielding power tools.
The best part of the experience, however, was definitely being able to connect in some way to the local community. Watching the kids play for hours in the pool, and listening to the stories of the local community members who stopped by, helped me to realize that what we did really would make a difference for these people. And when they asked how they could help us, I knew that even if it hadn’t been before, New Orleans is now a very special and unique place.
But I don’t want you to think everything about the NCVS service project was perfect. After all, there’s always room for improvement. As we drove through the Ninth Ward and spoke to its residents, all of us, I know, were wondering about the area before, during and after Katrina. And we received no information about it from our hosts beyond a couple paragraphs on the NCVS website. I know that if I had known more about the area, the history and what the people had been through, if even a few of our questions had been answered, I would have been even more involved in the project and it would have meant even more to me.
So to nonprofits I say this: Make sure your volunteers know the background behind their projects. Why and for whom are they doing their work? What impact will it have? There’s no question that your volunteers will make a difference with their work. But it’s not just about what they do, it’s about how they feel about it.
With more complete information, your volunteers will feel more connected, enthusiastic and proactive. And not only will there be a next time for them, but they just might bring some other people along to share in the experience, too.