Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Again I am inspired by my friend - and colleague in volunteer management - Faiza (who has a blog that never ceases to inspire - visit her at It's Gonna Be a Lovely Day!) who wrote a blog post about National Volunteer Week.  In it she referenced her life's purpose - Helping.  It took my breath away.  It was so simple!  I feel like I have been spending a lot of time lately trying to figure out what I care a lot about... what I am passionate about... what kind of mission could make me bounce out of bed in the morning.  And then I realized that I think I share something in common with Faiza - a desire to help.

I don't know where this urge to help comes from, but I know that it's nearly impossible for me to ignore - almost like a reflex.  Sometimes I find myself seeing this trait as a "negative" and I do struggle to make sure I balance out my own needs with the needs of others.  But I know why I do it.  The satisfaction I get from helping someone is so life affirming.  And I mean everything from helping a colleague with a jammed photocopier (which I am TERRIBLE at, by the way - absolutely zero mechanical skills!) to helping someone who has fallen to volunteering at a shelter.

Supporting and loving each other is important to me and I don't understand why you wouldn't want to do that for a fellow human being.  After all, when you boil it all down, we're just all passengers on this ball of dirt whipping around the sun, and for me it would be far more important to uplift someone while we're all here together than to put others second to your own needs and desires.  And I do believe that it will all come full circle in some way - if I sacrifice something to offer my help, I really do believe that whatever I sacrificed will be balanced out in some way in the long run. 

Oddly, I feel like 'helping' has been a bit of a theme for me this past week or so.  I helped a panhandler whose cane and coin cup were dashed out of his hands by a woman rushing past him.  I stopped everything for a moment in time on Sunday to hug someone as hard as I could whose family is in crisis.  I helped a bunch of lost students find a pub they were looking for. (hee!)

But I've also been the extremely humbled and grateful recipient of a lending hand.  This week I learned about the capacity that my co-workers have for giving and caring as they insisted on dropping everything and helped my department to get to the end of a busy week.  I learned about the depth of care that my husband has for me and our children - he parented on his own this week to allow me to spend much needed time on our volunteer awards event and still found time to do things like show the children snails "kissing" on the sidewalk and teach them how to play air guitar.  I learned that I have an incredible network of friends and family who astound me with their ability to send a supportive email or text at the most perfect moment in time.  And I was brought to tears by the compassion our vet demonstrated as he helped me with the difficult decision to euthanize our pain-in-butt-but-truly-beloved cat.  And I feel a bit embarassed to say that with the exception of the lost pub students, I cried after every single one of these helping/being helped moments.

Helping is so important... what better thing could you possibly do with your day than help another person?

As is the case with most of my helping experiences, I had one today that once again re-framed everything for me. 

I had left work a little bit early not feeling all that well... likely a bit worn out from weeks of planning our annual volunteer awards event at work - this is, after all, National Volunteer Week, and the event was our kick off to NVW!  On my way home to settle in for the evening, I came across a woman lying on the road beside her wheelchair and her friend, who was inconsolable.  A couple of passers-by were there who had stopped to try to help.  I jumped out of the car to find out what I could do.  What I experienced over the next 30 minutes left me feeling despondent and introspective.

This woman was breathing but in terrible pain and the general consensus seemed to be that she may have broken some bones.  She could not answer our questions and seemed to be in a state of shock.  Blood was running from her elbow and she was shaking from the waves of pain she seemed to be enduring.  Her clothes were dirty, her nails were dirty, and as I let her squeeze my hand to bear the pain, I noticed her wheechair.  It was old... really old.  It was rusted and threadbare.

As we waited for the ambulance to arrive, my attention became divided between this woman and her friend.  Their friendship was noteworthy - she seemed to be in her 50's, and he seemed to be in his late teens or early 20's.  I never did find out his name, but he was crying so hard that at times he said he thought he would vomit.  He was apologizing to her over and over again, but she could not answer - her breathing was too belaboured.  As we waited, he explained that he had been running along beside her wheelchair on the way home from the corner store, having fun and running circles around her - pretending to chase her to make her laugh.  He stopped short in front of her, and she had to slam on her brakes and she flipped out of the wheelchair and onto the road.  They were neighbours, he said, and her name was Carol.  The more he agonized over being responsible for this incident the more he revealed.  I think he didn't know what to do, so he just kept talking.  He said they lived in subsidized housing a few blocks away.  He said that she took regular medication, but she has some sort of coverage that was running out and that she was worried about paying for it.  He was worried that she was mad at him and that their friendship was in jeopardy.  And most heartwrenching for me to hear - he was terrified to go home because of how furious his father would be about this accident.  I didn't hear anything that made me think he would physically be in danger, but the more I pieced together, the more I realized that this one moment of simple and uncomplicated joy that the 2 of them were sharing had suddenly transformed into a moment with utterly significant consequences for them both.

When we could finally get Carol's breathing to slow down, I asked her if there was anything she could think of that I could do to help.  She finally uttered her first words and gasped, "Get me a new elbow."  I feel bad, but I burst out laughing.  She didn't laugh, but I am certain that she meant it the way I took it.  I just kept holding her hand and trying to reassure her friend that everything would be ok.

When the ambulance arrived, I got to live out the ultimate helper's fantasy.  The paramedics put me in charge of holding the stretcher still.  :-)

As they put Carol in the ambulance, there seemed to be much commotion.  Carole was starting to panic about money.  We didn't know what to do with her groceries.  Commotion about the fact that she apparently had no one close to her that would go with her to the hospital and commotion about what to do about her wheelchair - she needed it at the hospital, but it wouldn't fit into the ambulance.   No one had the means to get it there, so I offered to put the chair in my car and follow them to the hospital. That was the plan, and as the ambulance pulled away, me and my band of strangers tried to collapse the wheelchair, but found we couldn't and it wouldn't fit into my car.  So, Carol's friend ended up having to walk the wheelchair home and ask his dad for help - the other passers-by volunteered to walk with him, so I know he wasn't alone.

All of this reminded me that gratitude should be my order of the day - every day.

I was teary eyed over the fact that I was given yet another reminder of how much I take for granted.  If I flipped off of my bike, my only concern would be whether someone could call me an ambulance - and that is traumatic enough.  I would know that I have family and friends and neighbours that I could call on and count on.  I would not have to worry about the berating I would get if my father found out I had been horsing around and caused someone harm.  I know with absolute certainty that I would get nothing but unrestrained support and love.

All I could take away from this was the hope that maybe I had helped in some way even though I was feeling helpless about it all.  I am worried this will come across as obnoxious, but even though I was feeling helpless, somehow I felt like no individual task I did at work today was as necessary as what I could offer Carol and her friend today.

So why did I write all of this?  What is the point?  I'm not exactly sure.  It just seemed like too much of a coincidence that I came home emotional about this experience, only to have Faiza sum up what she knows to be her purpose in a single, impactful word that resonated with me so strongly.  I think maybe it all just made me feel like maybe I don't have to be a CEO or accomplished in my line of work to be important in this world... that maybe helping is as important as anything else and it's ok to be driven by it.