Sunday, January 24, 2010

Reaching Out

Sometimes it takes picking up the phone and dialing the number of someone you've never met, or sending a seemingly random email in hopes of a response; another time you send a long letter describing your need. But somewhere along the way, help does come--eventually. My friend Clemencia sent me a text message the other day, wondering if I had any community service ideas for her young adult son who is going through a difficult time. He eventually decided to sign up as a volunteer at the local Veteran's Administration hospital. Their volunteer recruitment process is a test of patience, so I encouraged Clem to tell KC to hold on and not give up. I hope the VA realizes quickly that he is not just a number on a spreadsheet of volunteers, but an individual with unique talents to offer. Please don't make him wait too long for a phone call...

The challenge in signing up with large organizations who employ volunteer coordinators is that most agencies are backlogged and overwhelmed. Call it a result of the economic downturn, or a sign of big bureaucracy; there are not enough hands to manage the work. In the meantime, what is a young person to do when he wants and needs to get out of the house and involved in the community? A proven technique to find good works connections is the "informational interview."

The popular career search book, "What Color is Your Parachute," by Richard Nelson Boles, promotes the idea of making connections in the world to find out more about a particular career path. I also encourage students to use this tool when looking for volunteer opportunities; at the very least they become better informed, at best they might land the perfect volunteer opportunity. Young volunteers like KC can get lost in the shuffle of the VA's online site, the subsequent forms and training requirements. If he has the time to wait, it will pay off. In the meantime, he could--with a little help--ask a few care providers to talk to him about their jobs and end the conversation with a connection request: "Do you have any volunteer opportunities here, or do you know anyone in the health care field who does?"

As mentioned in Boles' book, It's a good idea to carry a list of questions to ask when interviewing. Here are some that I developed with my students in the Life and Career Planning course:
  • What is the most gratifying part of your work? The most challenging?
  • What is the most important advice you would give to someone who is just starting out?
  • If you could go back to high school or college, would you choose a different path to this career? What would you do differently, or the same?
  • What are the best lessons you have learned in developing your career?
  • Do you have a mentor, or someone who has inspired you to succeed in your life and work?
If you pursue the path with a purpose, the answers to these questions will inspire new ideas and keep the creative thought process open. Remember to end the interview with the question, "Do you have any opportunities here, or can you introduce me to someone who might?" I have found in my own career search that most people are quite happy to be of assistance in this way. I was given the chance to meet with a De Anza College professor the other day, and within the hourlong discussion he introduced me to the perfect connection for my quest to develop a civic engagement and community service program for youth. It takes a little work to research and find the right contact, but I'm sure if KC can make a personal connection with someone at the VA or another healthcare agency, he will become more than a number on a database of applicants. He can stand out based on the unique talents he has to offer as a volunteer, and later if he desires, as a valued employee.

Interested in healthcare volunteer opportunities? Try these.

  • Visit the elderly. Visit a local resident care facility to see which of their patients need visitors. Plan a schedule, and bring specific activities each time. Some patients can only listen to a story, but others might be interested in puzzles or card games. One volunteer at our high school even developed a poker club with seniors in a care center last summer--too cool!
  • Host a blood drive. Our school's Key Club (affiliated with Rotary Club) recently sponsored a drive for Stanford Blood Center. See this article about Yerba Buena High School's drive,
  • Promote awareness of organ donation. Make posters, distribute organ donation cards.
  • Develop a hand washing campaign for your school or workplace to combat the spread of disease. Make a logo for your promotion on posters, flyers, local media, social networks. Use this kit from the Minnesota Department of Public Health,

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