A common refrain among people who like the idea of volunteering but never actually get around to doing it is that it takes a lot of paperwork and rigmarole. Which can be true. I showed up at a certain Catholic charity early last week and had to fill out an extensive application and background check, then watch a 30-minute video — only to be told that they probably couldn’t use me until September.
But there are plenty of exceptions to the rule of procedural bureaucracy. A perfect example is a big national organization like the Boys and Girls Club of America, to which I decided to give three hours of my time last Wednesday.
I show up at the Club’s massive red-brick, northeast Spokane headquarters (formerly St. Xavier’s Catholic elementary school) around noon and meet program director Dave Cardinale in the steamy, hamburger-scented kitchen. After a short background check and application (it would have been longer were I not a reporter and thus, somehow, considered inherently trustworthy), Dave gives me a tour of the building’s second story. Each classroom lining the long, narrow hallway has a specific purpose and function: the Teen Center, the art room, the library, the science room, a meeting place for Boy Scout groups. And every room is sweltering, with no AC. By mid-afternoon, Dave assures me, the rooms on this side of the building will be unbearable.
Within minutes of my arrival, I’m already “working” with the kids, out on the concrete kickball court, sending slow rollers toward home plate.
And I’m loving it. If our original intent for this package of stories was for writers to volunteer somewhere that might push them out of their comfort zones, we chose the wrong place for me. I’ve worked with kids for years, and for much of that time I was stuck in a classroom teaching them to read or showing them the wrong way to do long division. Every day I waited for the recess bell, because the playground is where I’d get to interact with children in their natural environment.
It’s no different here, and I’m quickly swarmed by 8- and 9-year-old boys, whose parents probably work and who are probably wanting to find ways to keep them out of trouble all summer. The Boys and Girls Club functions as a parental support-structure in an age when such institutions are getting harder to find. These kids are either looking for attention from an older male or just waiting for me to get out of the way so they can fight over who gets to pitch next. When one kid refuses to kick a certain pitch, judging it too bouncy, all the boys in the infield roll their eyes, throw up their arms, and cry “Oh my gosh” like Valley Girls. When a tiny little girl steps up to the plate, the boys all crowd in close; she kicks at the ball with all the strength and coordination she can muster and sends one jelly sandal on a high spiral into the air.
One kid — I’ll call him Myron — he’s probably 6 years old, and he seems delighted to have another guy around (though, truth be told, the place is staffed almost entirely by college-age men). He stands close to me and promises that when he gets up to the plate next inning, he’s gonna kick that ball so far. Offense must be his sole area of expertise, though, because when he’s sent to play defense at first base he quickly loses focus. On one routine grounder to the pitcher’s circle, I wheel around to find him doubled over, facing the wrong direction, picking up rocks and quietly singing to himself.
Lunch time. All the kids crowd onto the stage at the far end of the expansive multipurpose room as the club’s staff pace in front of them, laying out the ground rules for lunch, announcing the activity offerings for the afternoon and providing a kind of civic sermon. Ryan Rodriguez, the club’s social recreation director, explains that when he leaves the building for the day or for the weekend, he is still an employee, a member, of the Boys and Girls Club. As such, he behaves in a way befitting the Boys and Girls Club. Likewise, he says, club members should remember when they’re outside of the club that they are club members and should live by the same rules they live by inside the club. In conclusion, he asks, “And what is life all about?” The kids all scream something in unison. Justice? Trusses? Chaucer?
“Choices,” Rodriguez tells me later. That’s the name of the game here. Club members can choose to behave or misbehave, to grow bored or have fun, to treat each other with respect or not. Though they might suffer the consequences for poor choices, the choices are theirs nonetheless. That kind of free will is reflected in the diversity of games and programs available to them. The downstairs multipurpose room is filled with pool and ping pong tables, foosball games, a pinball machine, a video game console. Upstairs, kids fill the classrooms for art projects, computer education, reading time, science lessons.
The one area where the kids have less choice is at the lunch table. I’m put in charge of watching them as they file out of the kitchen with Club-issue plates of hamburgers and apples and milk and sit down at the broad white tables to make messes of themselves. Sounds like a simple enough task, but anyone who’s ever done it knows that it’s rarely predictable. One kid, maybe a middle schooler, seems to be performing a monologue to himself in the middle of a crowded table. No one is paying him attention. A little girl at the far end of the tables is clearly power-lunching. Clutching some kind of plastic snow globe to her head like it’s a cell phone, she paces back and forth, chattering manically about imaginary business transactions. “What?!,” she yells to one caller, “I can’t hear you. Sorry, it’s too loud!”
Toward the end of lunch I hit a volunteer speed bump — the first and only time that I feel like I need to know more to do my job right. Passing by a table filled with the smallest and youngest of the club’s boys, I glance at a towhead with thick glasses as he thrusts the butt of his fork into his half-eaten Red Delicious apple. His eyes widen in awe, like he’s just invented the wheel — apple on a stick! Genius! He looks up and sees me watching him, and I laugh at the expression on his face. Which prompts all the rest of the kids to jab their forks into their apples, too. I sense that maybe the Boys and Girls Club would have something to say about this, but I don’t know. I’m playfully cautioning them not to eat their forks when bossman Dave swoops in, gets right in the first kid’s face and says “I just sent two kids home for doing what you’re doing. Now take that fork out of your apple!” They do, looking a little sheepish, but not nearly as much as me.
Three hours later, I’m ready to return to the newspaper office. I almost feel guilty. I’m sure that Michael and Leah actually had to work at their volunteer posts; all I did was play. I’m not certain that what I did really made a difference for anybody until I’m invited to a game of two-on-two foosball and a crowd starts to form around our table. When the opposing team beats us (fair and square, I might add) everyone cheers at the thought of a couple of kids beating an adult at something. It’s empowering. For a moment, I’m glad that I have bird-like wrists and poor motor skills.
The crowd quickly dissipates as the kids go in search of more choices.