Sunday, September 9, 2012

Anchoring Our Volunteerism and Our Identity

One of the motivations behind the foundation of Humanists of Rhode Island was to provide a means by which humanists, atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers could reliably and regularly express themselves through volunteerism in the community. By design, volunteerism is built into the very DNA of Humanists of Rhode Island, and one of the ways we do this is by setting up a regular gig, specifically the second Saturday of every month, to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Providence.

What this means is that each month our group provides Habitat between five and seven volunteers ready to do the hard, but fun and rewarding work of building a house between 8:30 AM and 3 PM on a day many people would prefer to be sleeping late. We've been volunteering regularly now as a group for just over a year and we are one of the most regular and consistent groups volunteering at our local Habitat. We have a great reputation there for consistency and quality. Even when we can only get three or four people to show up, as sometimes happens in those long, hot summer months when it seems that everyone is traveling or otherwise engaged, we at least have someone there, ready to work.

Having a group to depend on and that depends on you is very satisfying. Even on the occasional weekend where I personally can't make it to a build, I know that there are other Humanists out there, picking up my slack. I might feel badly about not being there and contributing, but I can at least be glad that there are people I know contributing to the public good as members of a group I am proud to be a part of.

This last weekend our group represented in unprecedented numbers, as six new people, Greg, Allison, Dounia, Michelle, Ethan and Joyce showed up in addition to Adam, Shawn and myself. We had a total of nine people show up to work at a brand new house. We had some Humanists on the roof nailing shingles, working outside on the siding, and inside putting up firewall. We worked side by side with another group and accomplished quite a bit. The house was noticeably more complete by the time we packed up and left.

Talking to some of the newcomers I was pleased to hear that what attracted them to our group was the opportunity to volunteer with Habitat. These are people who may or may not want to engage in political work ensuring the separation of church and state, join us on picnics or attend book signings, but they do want a community from which to engage with the greater society as volunteers, and I'm proud to say that my little group, in our own little way, provides that.

Volunteerism is an end unto itself. Making the world a better place is the right thing to do. The feeling of accomplishment and the positive feelings generated after participation are bonuses: happy side effects of our necessary work. Of course, maybe I have this backwards. Maybe we are all just going after the positive emotional benefits that such volunteerism provides, and the fact that the world has been slightly improved is just a happy consequence. Either way you slice it, so what? This is what they call a win/win situation, and I'm happy to be a part of it.

Another happy consequence of our volunteer efforts is the moral authority such work accrues to our causes. It would be quite easy for the public at large to dismiss our political concerns regarding human rights and church/state separation if we were simply a group writing indignant letters to the editor and having once a month potlucks in a community room somewhere. But our volunteer work shows that we are willing to put our ideals into action. We live our values. That makes us harder to ignore.

Humanists of Rhode Island, in addition to Habitat, also maintain a two mile stretch of road in Cranston Rhode Island as part of an Adopt-a-Highway program run by the state. We've just started holding blood drives as well. We're sponsoring a team for Light the Night to raise money to fight Leukemia and Lymphoma. We'll be out doing holiday gift wrapping to raise money for some special cause later in the year. And other efforts will come our way as well, since we're always looking for more to do.

Is it possible for a group to do too much? I don't think so. There are two things to remember here. First, not everybody can do everything. Personally, I can't give blood. But I can pick up litter and pound nails. Others have no problem giving blood and building houses but get grossed out at the prospect of picking up litter. Still others love to gift wrap.

The second thing to remember is that people will find your group because of what you're doing. Habitat is bringing new members into our group, and building houses might be all they are interested in doing. That's great! A group that has a lot of things going on allows those participating to feel real ownership of the projects they participate in. It's important to remember that the group doesn't belong to any one person, it belongs to every member.

Next month our Habitat volunteer team might have nine members again, or we might have four, or we might have sixteen. I like to think we're growing, that our efforts are paying off and that we're changing hearts and minds through our volunteerism.

This is how we change the world for the better.