Monday, March 9, 2009

Mud, Sheetrock, and Volunteering

Two of my favorite pastimes are running and community service. There are probably lots of blogs about running; I'm writing about an analogy that I discovered while approaching my favorite trail and thinking about a great volunteer effort going on now at my work. I talked earlier about "Wonder Girl," the amazing volunteer who shall remain anonymous--only that person will know who she really is. Even though W.G. is the quintessential volunteer, there are dozens and dozens of others I've come across over the years that share her exuberance for making a difference in the world in some small way. If you've ever signed up to help in the community, at the school or church, you may have had the experience where you got into something unexpected, out of your comfort zone.

An acquaintance from the ski hill, Mermer Blakeslee, wrote a book titled, In the Yikes! Zone, all about expanding our comfort zones through skiing for a more enjoyable and meaningful life. Today, I decided that the Slogging Zone is in close proximity. After working hard all day, I decided that to preserve my sanity I simply had to go for a run. It was a perfectly sunny, albeit cold, day. I put on my brand new Nike Air Equalons and headed for the trail which starts about two miles from home. As I approached the canal pass where I needed to cross under the freeway at the start of the trail, I noticed it was much drier than last time I had tried. I wouldn't be discouraged by a little mud--I needed my trail running therapy today. I remembered the relative quiet on the other side of the freeway, where a bird sanctuary and golf course meet the municipal airport. I thought about all the native birds I would see on my favorite part of the trail.

As I proceeded under the freeway along the canal, I could see that the rain had washed a deep earthen path from the city to the wetlands forty yards away. About ten yards into it, I wondered if the mud would get deeper, but all I could focus on was the light on the other side and the clear path if I could just get to it. Another ten yards or so, and my brand new Nikes were stuck in four inches of gooey, slippery gunk. There I was, half way. I could turn back and hopefully save my new shoes, or I could just keep slogging and try to make it to my destination: the joy of running with pelicans and pheasants alongside pilots in small planes. I looked at myself in this situation and smiled, scanning back and forth along the canal pass. Why did I feel the need to keep going, regardless of the condition of my shoes, even not caring if I slipped a few times in the mud? Why did anyone ever cross the road, right? Exactly: because it's there. And what I saw on the other side made me happy, so I had to proceed.

I stopped looking back and just figured I would deal with possibly ruined running shoes later. The mud did get a little deeper for a minute but finally I made it to the Baylands trail, where I had one of the most enjoyable runs ever. Not only did I get to stop for a "visual timeout" to watch a flock of six white pelicans; I walked for a minute or two to check out the most colorful ringneck pheasant I've seen. My run was a success. Regardless of the fact that I now had to slog back along the same path to return home, it was worth it--even when my shoe got stuck and I pulled my foot right out of it. (If you've ever wondered about your running shoes, go ahead and throw them into the washer--it works, good as new!)

During this experience of hard-earned pleasantry, I remembered a community service day I had last fall when I signed up to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity for the first time. I always thought the idea of Habitat looked and sounded so cool: ordinary people come together and build houses for each other, no problem! Even though I have spent many a day on construction sites, this volunteer job put me into both the "Yikes! Zone" that Mermer describes and my newly discovered "Slogging Zone." I arrived with some friends from church early in the morning with my only preparation being old jeans and a sweatshirt, a cell phone in my pocket. The trained volunteer crew leader welcomed us and started inviting groups of four or five to accept the assignments she called out for the day: "Rebar! Trenches! Window installation!" She went on; none of the available jobs sounded like anything I felt comfortable doing, nor was I interested in learning how to do them. Finally, those of us waiting in the "Yikes! Zone" were left with the only remaining option: "Sheetrock!" We reluctantly raised our hands, I myself wishing there had been a simple task like stacking and sorting tile or wood for the day.

We were handed our tools and belts, and I remembered the last time I helped with sheetrock: Brody was two years old, and our sheetrock effort was a disaster. We found out that making a curved wall is only for experts, so we hired one. For this Habitat day I was the first to offer my services with another worker carrying the heavy boards upstairs, instead of being on the cutting and hammering team. But that job was quickly finished, leaving me with the only choice of going into the slogging zone: the tedious and frustrating work of measuring, cutting, and re-measuring after our mistakes (and there were a few). At the end of the day, after having gone into the zones of discomfort from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., I discovered that some things are just messy, there's no way around it. That's the way the job gets done. I was so proud of my efforts to cleanly pound the nails into that sheetrock, I almost took a picture. It was sheer pleasure out of pain and frustration; just like the muddy run.

Fast forward to these last two weeks at work, where I have led a volunteer committee to execute our first annual "Career Month" for the benefit of 1800 high school students. I invited volunteers from the parent community and another part-timer to help organize an event to bring nineteen successful career speakers from Silicon Valley to inspire our students to "find their passion in work and life." Two speakers would come to separate venues at our school each day for two weeks. After many months of planning, the time arrived for the event and my volunteer committee was called into daily duty. Little did we know the kind of response we would receive from the school; we just didn't want to fall on our faces. I promised we wouldn't! We hoped to get a dozen or two students to come to each speaker session, and as an incentive if they signed up ahead of time we had promised pizza/lunch. When the sign-up sheets were turned in on Friday with hundreds and hundreds of names, the Career Month committee was thrown into slogging mode! By Monday we had to figure out how to feed all those students, with little funds available. I didn't tell them, but as I drove south on Highway 101 that afternoon I thought how nice it would be to just keep on driving and I'd escape to Sally's house in San Diego by dark!

Now, we're on the other side of the "canal pass" and nearly through with the speaker series, we are out of the mess and into the pleasure. We asked for extra help and it came. We practiced the routine over and over, and now it's starting to feel like a procedure every morning, rather than an emergency. We can even sit and enjoy listening to the speakers if we want to. I am so thankful to the three parent volunteers and to my co-worker who stayed with me as we embarked into the unknown to create a new vehicle for students to explore career paths and interests. There is no way we could have known how messy and sticky it would become along the way, but now that we are on the other side I think we all agree it was worth a trip through the Slogging Zone.

The New World Dictionary defines SLOGGING: vi. 1. mak(ing) one's way with great effort; plodding 2. work(ing) hard at something; toil(ing).

To find local volunteer opportunities with Habitat for Humanity:
When you arrive, be ready to leave your comfort zone !


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