The head trainer at our CrossFit gym has a great saying, "Be nice to someone. It'll change your life."
In the early 1990s, I volunteered as a "patient escort" at a women's reproductive-health clinic. They offered a whole array of medical services there, but the fact that one of those services was early-term abortions was the reason for the presence of the escorts. See, I don't really care what your personal view of abortion is, but if it includes really angry people spewing hate and waving signs, gross photos and fake body parts at scared women (sometimes not women at all, but teenage girls), then really, fuck you. I am completely unclear on the details of how I originally got into escorting patients there, but it quickly became very rewarding if your definition of "rewarding" is "feeling good about doing something good."
The patients would park at the facility on private property, so, usually (but not always) the angry protestors were confined to the public sidewalk out front. But, man, those protestors were noisy, and obnoxious, and the patients could easily hear and see them. The escort's goal was, first, to assure the patient knew that he was one of the good guys ("Hi, my name's Steve, and I'm a patient escort here at the center. I am going to walk you into the building"), and then, basically to distract them from the crap going on ("OK, when we round this corner and head for the door there are a bunch of people with nothing better to do today than yell things at us and wave signs. Don't watch them. Don't listen to them. They're dumb. I have better words, but we'll go with 'dumb.' Just talk to me, about anything. The weather. The Phillies. The Eagles. The Flyers. Your favorite flavor of ice cream. Anything. Just keep walking and talking to me"). The patients generally thanked us profusely when we got to the door. There were a lot of patient tears caused by those idiots out front, but I like to think we escorts did our best to minimize them.
Eventually, after quite a few years of this nonsense -- and more than one "rescue" attempt by the protestors in which they tried to form a human chain, trespassing on private property, to block the doors (the cooler ones amongst the responding cops would allow us to gleefully point out which particularly gross and obnoxious "rescuers" to arrest first; "Him, officer! He likes to scream obscenities at teenage girls," and so it went....) -- the protests mostly stopped and the center said they didn't need us very often anymore.
Around this same time, my kids started getting old enough that they were playing sports -- a lot of sports. And they needed coaches, so I hung up my escort duds and coached as a volunteer for almost ten years: baseball, soccer and indoor soccer.... It was fun, and, undoubtedly, a whole bunch of kids benefitted, but competition and modern parents being what they are, it rarely felt as purely humanitarian/helpful as the escort gig did. The pursuit of victory, can -- over the long haul -- conflict a bit with trying to always just be a helpful volunteer. By the time my kids' athletic abilities outgrew my coaching prowess, I wasn't terribly sorry to let more skilled folks take over. The grind of overcompetition (by other parents, and, more often than I like to admit, myself) had worn me down a bit.
Then my dad's health (mental and physical) took a multiyear slide into the abyss that I have detailed on this blog quite a bit, and.... I got out of the public volunteering business while I did my best to help him out from a bit of a distance.
But then he passed away a few months ago, and my wife and I started talking about how, with kids off at college and grad school, we suddenly had a boatload of free time.
And, man, we *love* dogs.
See, our local county animal shelter is, technically, a "kill" shelter. They will euthanize if there is no room for that animal in the shelter. But they are really good about notifying rescue groups first to get the dog or cat out to a foster family, and so euthanizing is pretty rare there. But the shelter employees have a lot of work to do, and *entertaining* the animals with exercise is not one of them. So there is a "friends of the shelter" group that handles dog walking.
We jumped on the chance to join them as volunteers. It's been a few weeks now and I think this may be more rewarding than even the escort gig was. We have four big dogs of our own; we are used to a bit of fuzzy chaos. So we graduated pretty quickly to being cleared to walk most of the dogs in the shelter. Only the most behaviorally challenged pups are off-limits to us at this point. So in we go, a few times a week, for an hour or more, to take these guys for walks. They are a blast. They do happy dances when they realize you are going to pick them. They smother you in affection, and, yes, sometimes they poop so much that you run out of poop bags. Their zeal for getting the hell out of there is often matched by their ability to tug harder on the leash than you ever thought possible to get to the gate to get outside. It's like a core strength/balance workout. And once you start returning to volunteer fairly often, the dogs start recognizing you, and throwing a special "celebrate you" party that is so gleeful that it's hard to describe.
We leave there feeling great *every* time. And the dogs feel better than when we got there. (And, yes, *our* dogs just about strip-search us when we arrive home, trying to figure out where we have been and why there were so many dogs there). It's a sad place, but we get to add a little happiness to the mix, and that makes everyone involved, dogs and people, feel better.
So what's the point of all this, you might ask?
It's my small pitch to get you to go volunteer somewhere doing something. Anything. Anywhere. Pick it. But, invariably, the benefits of it are more than just the obvious assistance to whomever you might be helping. Because whether it's the happy look of a just-walked dog, the "thank you" whispered by the scared girl you just walked into a medical clinic, the appreciation expressed by the parents of the kids you just coached for a season, or some other indication that somehow you made the world a little nicer place with a little giving of your time and effort, you'll personally get a world of benefit out of the whole experience as well. Go be nice to someone. It'll change your life.
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