Toronto
3 min

The selfish volunteer

It's time to start reassessing routines

Lengthening shadows, the Ex, Labour Day weekend. No matter how old I get, this time of year puts me in a back-to-school frame of mind. It gets me thinking about rearranging my weekly routines to make better use of my time and introducing new activities into my life.

As much as I think of this as being a back-to-school feeling, it isn’t so much a matter of looking forward to a learning opportunity, though there’s certainly a self-improvement element to it. More likely it’s a holdover from so many years of juggling my schedule around my new school timetable and having access to new people and extracurricular opportunities.

I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to fill up available time with projects. It drives my girlfriend insane. Sitting still is just not something that comes naturally to me. Through high school and university I had problems with forgetting to schedule in time to eat and sleep, let alone study. I signed up for too many activities, joined too many organizations, volunteered to do too many things. Inevitably I would hit a crunch point where I made myself insane trying to live up to all my various commitments.

Every September offered a fresh start, a time to reassess and strategize. Every September I vowed to learn from my mistakes, so that I wouldn’t again have to feel that awful, sleep-deprivation-enhanced frustration of not having enough time to do all the things that needed doing.

But try as I might, I don’t think I ever really figured out how to reconcile my desire to be constantly adding new complications into my life and the realistic limits of time and human ability. So here it is September again, and once more I’m thinking about all the daft things I do with my time and whether or not I should make some changes.

One of the things I feel like I’ve been missing out on is a steady volunteer gig. I’ve taken on a couple of short-term volunteer projects in the past year, mostly centring around particular events, but nothing that gave me the sense of satisfaction that I’ve experienced in the past as a long-term volunteer.

As much as I know how crucial volunteers are to many community organizations, I think that, if I’m being honest, I volunteer for self-serving reasons. To start with, it’s a great way to meet people. Back in university I met most of my lovers through various student activist organizations, including the woman who is my partner to this day. More recently, I met my boyfriend through one of the aforementioned volunteer stints. Sick of the bar scene? Not having any luck in the on-line dating game? Give a community-service organization a chance.

If the possibility of hooking up isn’t enough of an incentive, volunteering offers a certain sense of belonging and purpose that’s difficult to find elsewhere. Sure you might be lucky enough to be close to your family or to find friends amongst your coworkers, but the truth is that, whether you like them or not, you’re more or less stuck with them. Similarly, you may be blessed with the best friends a person could wish for, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you share greater goals with them the way you do when you’re working within a community-service organization.

In addition to the sense of being a part of something bigger than yourself that comes from volunteering, it’s amazing what being exposed to people whose lives suck worse than yours can do for your sense of perspective. I was volunteering for the Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line as a peer counsellor when I finally managed to come out to my mom in a successful way (the first few times didn’t take). As nerve-wracking as it was, my experience didn’t compare to the tales of rejection that I was hearing from callers around the same time.

I can think of other reasons why I’d like to be a volunteer again, but I don’t really need convincing. What about you?

Xtra’s 925-XTRA directory lists just a fraction of the local groups that depend on volunteers to keep them going, and flipping through the pages of Xtra is a good way to learn about various groups and get a sense of whether or not they’re a good fit for you.

Now it’s just a matter of finding the time.