Thursday, December 23, 2010

Freezing My Tush for The Salvation Army

An hour after returning home from my four-hour bell-ringing experience for The Salvation Army, I began to regain feeling in my toes. Despite the warmth, I was still seething with how my experience ended. And to be fair, I'm still not in a great mood.

My afternoon went about as best as can be expected. The first hour went quickly. At that point, I plugged in my iPod. Otis Redding on a frigid evening was a nice start, and my soundtrack shuffled along.

By hour two, I had made two quick stops inside the Kroger doors to warm up. The shuffle on my pod went to classic rock. By the time "Freebird" came on, I was swinging my bell like I was trying to fly away one-handed. I forgot how long that solo lasts.

Hour three was the worst. It dragged on and on. When five-thirty came along, my ghetto "old skool" hip-hop mix thumped through the headphones. Some Juvenile and Outkast had me, no joke, two-steppin' like Julia Stiles in that crappy movie, "Save the Last Dance." If anything, this kept me warm and made many people stare and laugh. That's cool though. My personal philosophy is that it's OK to make a jackass of myself on a daily basis. Score one for me.

Throughout all of this, kind strangers slipped their dollars and change into to the slot of the red kettle.

When I only had fifteen minutes for my shift to end, I was relieved and panicky. What if they don't show? What would I do with this kettle? Five minutes to six, and my relief came. As the paid worker approached, he kindly said, "I came a little early. I thought you might be cold, this being your first time."

He then told me he could take over and directed me to the blue van in the parking lot where the woman who changes the kettles was sitting. As I approached her door, I could tell that she was ticked.

"Hi, um, my relief guy came, so..."

"What are you doing?" she asked. "You still have five minutes on your shift! That's your bucket up there, not his. You go up there and tell him I will be there in five minutes."

Astonished, I turned away and started walking back. I should state that with my chubby cheeks and padded-up getup, I look pretty darn young. Regardless, I was put off by this attitude. The woman started walking behind me, and when she approached, she chewed out the guy for being EARLY!

She went back to get the van and switched the kettles.

At this point, I'd had it. I waited until we were near the van and away from the employee.

"Hi, what's your name," I asked. After her response, "Well, my name is Valerie West, and I work at The Oakland Press, and I write about volunteering."

Sidebar — I have never used this line before. It felt odd and powerful at the same time. I kept thinking, of that line, "With great power comes great responsibility" from "Spider Man."

"I don't want to get anyone in trouble, but I've been volunteering for quite a while, and I have never been spoken to so rudely or scolded like that."

Her face fell, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scold you. But I don't like him telling me how to do my job."

"I don't think he was telling you how to do your job. I think he was doing his job and showed up early. I've been out here for four hours. I'm cold. And I'm a volunteer. I don't get paid to do this! And that man was nice enough to come and help out.

She apologized again.

I didn't accept it. When I'm angry, I can be steely. I was not in the mood for forgiveness. I wish that I could be the kind of person who turns the other cheek and doesn't have to have the last word. Perhaps if she had given me some sob story of her life, and why she was so cranky, I could have. But I didn't. Colder than the temperature outside, I repeated, "It's cold. It's been four hours. Have a nice night."

I want to give the benefit of the doubt, and say that this type of behavior is not typical. I would, except that after my last post, another volunteer complained about her experience. I should note that this woman is pretty active in her community.

This was her Facebook post, "I had hands down the WORST experience ever as a bell ringer (if I can even call myself that since I was put through so many... loops of bs) last year. Long story short, I followed instructions, asked questions before to confirm, showed up then, an hour into my time, with no kettle, was told it was all my fault."

What can I say, nine months into this project and right before Christmas, I have a sour taste in my mouth.

I certainly would not want this woman fired for what happened. Instead, I'd like her to enjoy a nice eight-hour stint ringing that bell outside of a Kroger. At the very least, I would hope that she has more respect for the people who take time out of their lives to volunteer for others.

And to all of those wonderful donors who sent me words of encouragement while throwing some coin into the red kettle — thank you.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Salvation Army Bell Ringing Dilemma

The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is a landmark for the gay community and its advocates. Men and women serving the country — and let's face it, dying on foreign soil — will no longer have to deny a key part of who they are. It's also timely in my life, considering something a friend wrote me.

After my last blog post, my friend, who is gay, left a comment that has me questioning myself: "They (The Salvation Army) have repeatedly refused to serve food or provide shelter to gays in need. Many people won't donate to their organization because of this," he wrote.

The Salvation Army has been accused of denying assistance to gays as well as discriminating in hiring  practices, according to numerous news reports. After scouring old news stories, the most recent I found was from The Huffington Post, earlier this month. The article suggests that perhaps donations are down because of the Army's stance on homosexuality. While The Salvation Army is a Christian organization, it does take federal funding. Many evangelical organizations condemn homosexuality. The Catholic faith is a powerhouse of charity work, yet we know where it stands on reproductive choices and gay rights.

Here's an excerpt from The Salavation Army's website:

"The Army regards the origins of a homosexual orientation as a mystery and does not regard a homosexual disposition as blameworthy in itself or rectifiable at will. Nevertheless, while we are not responsible for what we are, we are accountable for what we do; and homosexual conduct, like heterosexual conduct, is controllable and may be morally evaluated therefore in the light of scriptural teaching."

Basically, it says, It's OK to be gay — but not act on physical impulses. So, it's not OK to be gay?

The mission of The Salvation Army is "To preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination," and stands firm that it does not discriminate based on sexual preference.

For the record, I am for gay rights, and do not support discrimination of any kind. Personally, it annoys me that people care so much what others choose to do in their bedrooms. Aren't there more important things to worry about? Thus, I find myself in a dilemma. Am I making a difference helping the area's hungry and homeless while at the same time promoting anti-gay propaganda?

I have worked with other Christian organizations even though I do not believe or accept some key notions of the faith. I have volunteered alongside Bible thumpers as well as aetheists. There seems to be a unified goal among volunteers to help and not judge.

Because I haven't stayed in a Salvation Army-sponsored shelters, I doubt I will find out if gay people have faced discrimination. Perhaps it’s something to check out down the road. I would hope being a charitable organization, this would not happen.

Regardless, I will honor my committment this afternoon. To be honest, I don't know how to feel about it.

I encourage discourse on this matter though. Please leave a comment.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ring-ting-aling with the Red Kettle Campaign

In college, a friend and I stood outside of a ShopKo (a Yooper Kmart) and rang bells for The Salvation Army. I think it was only a couple of hours, but I remember that we tried to stay warm by jumping around when customers weren't near us while we butchered the lyrics to Christmas carols.

Now, tomorrow, I will be doing it solo. For four hours. There will be no concert.

This has been a rough year for the Red Kettle campaign. For the Pontiac-area, the donations were down five-thousand dollars from where it was last year, said Major Nate Johnson, last Friday. Usually, the Red Kettle campaign is finished by Christmas, but because donations have been down, it will continue to December 31.

"The Christmas Kettle is our single, largest drive of the year," Nate said, adding that the money helps with holiday items, like food baskets. But it also funds year-round assistance including literacy, senior and after-school programs.

Johnson speculates that part of the reason funds may be down is partly because of the economy and partly because of the weather. It has been a cold one down here, and I wonder if I've brought a little U.P. to Southeastern Michigan. I bought new mittens so that I won't have to spend as much time inside warming up.

This is a critical time for The Salvation Army Nate said, "I don't know when things are going to get better. You hear it's getting better, but we're not seeing it on our end. We hope they remember the Red Kettle this time of year."

I hope you do too. I understand that not everyone can give. If you can't give though, perhaps throw me a smile. I know most people would like to just get in and get out without looking at the person in the red apron, but really, it doesn't hurt my feelings if you have no coin. Being ignored sucks though. 

Besides being a worthy cause, volunteering with the Red Kettle is downright convenient. Compared to many volunteer stints, I didn't have to sign a bunch of documents, provide my Social Security number, or my right leg. OK, I'm exaggerating.

But it was easy, I just visited and filled in the location and time that I desired. Even though donations are down, volunteer help has risen. Nate noted that many athletic teams from Oakland University have helped out, as well as Rochester Schools and the Clarkston United Methodist Church.

So, if you happen to go grocery shopping in White Lake, you might see me ringing a bell from two to six.

Happy Shopping!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Smorgasbord and Merry Christmas!

Fair trade goods for Christmas! 
If you live in Southeastern Michigan, it should come as no surprise that many places canceled Monday and Tuesday — not the news though! My round trip commute to work, which is just less than forty miles, ended up taking nearly four hours. Banging my head against my steering wheel, I was glad to find out that afternoon tutoring was canceled for the night.

But, I still got to hang out yesterday for an international potluck. A feast. And it was delicious.

Though the only country I have yet to travel outside of the U.S. to is Canada, tutoring ESL has given me a small taste of other cultures. Last night was no exception. As I ate a variety of foods representing German, Polish and Asian cultures, I realized that we are all so much alike. I also realized that if I had the money, I would hire one of the students as my personal chef. Bring on the sauteed peppers with feta!

Give us good food, and stories of families come tumbling out. Who doesn't have problems with inlaws? OK, I'm actually pretty lucky in that field, but many are not. This experience has made me realize how much I like tutoring English to non-native speakers. There are only two classes left after the holidays, and I will not be staying for the second semester. I feel sad about this, and wonder if my Tuesday nights will seem a little dull.

Though I love it, and want to continue in the future, the goal of the blog was to try a variety of volunteer opportunities and share them. Because there is no class next week, I will be helping out the Salvation Army's Red Kettle campaign.

Yep, I will be begging for  your coin outside of the White Lake Kroger Wednesday. OK, I won't actually beg, but I will ring that bell heartily.

As Christmas quickly approaches, there are still many things that you can do to make a difference, locally and globally.

- Many stores, churches, shelters and nonprofit organizations offer ways to donate or adopt a family for Christmas. Most lists ask for gift items for children, clothing and food. While you won't know the family directly, you will know that on Christmas, you have made a difference in making the holiday special. I can't list every organization that offers this service, but here are a couple local groups that can always use money to help families:

Oakland Livingston Human Services Agency can always use donations, especially around the holidays. A couple of years ago, I reported on a local Optimist Club who delivered gifts to children there. It seeks volunteers year-round.

Lighthouse of Oakland County offers emergency services. It also has a wish list of items many families need. Or, if you have some time, a multitude of volunteer opportunities are available. Secretaries, drivers, and more are all needed.

Toys for Tots is another easy way to give back. Many local stores have a drop boxes at their locations, taking the guess work out of giving.

For those who are still shopping for gifts, (I know many of you are!) fair-trade goods offer a way to give a unique gift while helping out the artisans who created it. I just bought gifts from Global Girlfriend. The shipping was fast and inexpensive, and I am more than happy with my purchases. There are many more similar websites. I chose this one because I liked the products and it was endorsed by Oprah, which meant I could be lazy and didn't have to check if it was legit. But there are many others out there, so if you find one, please share it.

See you at Kroger!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lesson Plans

All three of my ladies made it to last Thursday's tutoring session. I was battling a nagging cold, thus, the late blog response.

After working on the resume from the last session, and reading newspaper articles, we did a crossword puzzle. The women did surprisingly well, and I don't know why we didn't do this sooner. Not only is it fun, but it does help the women improve their vocabularies.

We've got some specific work ahead of us for tomorrow. One woman, who struggles with telling stories in detail, was assigned to tell me something about herself. I told her it could be her wedding, a birthday, a death in her family. I suggested she write in in Polish and then attempt to translate in English.

For another student who struggles with writing, she suggested I make some flashcards with single words on them so that she can piece sentences together. Good idea — now, I just have to make the cards up tonight. I'm interested to see what things she can come up with. I figure we could try more crossword puzzles as well.

The class isn't all work though, it's a cultural experience. Thursday, I will be sneaking back in for a potluck to try out some traditional dishes from the students.

With the holidays quickly approaching, it's not always easy to take time out of busy schedules to help out. But later this week, I will post some volunteer opportunities that may be convenient for some to try out. Also, for those still struggling for gift ideas, I'll have some creative giving ways to help out the community.

If you have any ideas, please feel free to send me a message, and I will try to include it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Job Hunt

The Great Language Barrier has never felt so strong as it has during the last couple of weeks tutoring. The class seems to be getting leaner, and I have been working with a woman who speaks very limited English.

So, on my part, there are a lot of gestures and comparisons. The week before Thanksgiving, she was given a list of words that she would see in "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving."

Traditions. Wishy-washy. Peculiar. 

Traditions seemed to be no problem. Wishy-washy, not so much.

"It's when you can't make up your mind," I said. "When you keep going back-and-forth trying to make a decision.

"Like, 'I think I want turkey for dinner. No, I want meatloaf. Nope, better make it turkey.' Does that make sense?"

"Like, gas in your car?"

"Not exactly."

Dictionaries are no help at all. Half of the words in the definition need to be defined. 

I could literally hear the minutes ticking away on the clock hanging from the wall. It was a bit stressful for both of us.

This week, luckily, things were a bit smoother.

I have to give this student credit. She spends a lot of time in the library. Instead of working on a list of words this week, we worked on job applications.

"Tell me what you are good at."

"I cook. I clean. I do everything but prostitution," she said, laughing.

After getting her to  explain what her duties were, we had a pretty good start. Now, I'm going to turn that into a resume for her.

I can't imagine how hard it would be to find a job in this economy, and not even be able to speak English well. But I'm going to remain optimistic.