Today is my mother’s birthday. She would be 83. In her later years Mom embraced genealogy with the same whole-hearted enthusiasm she brought to her many other interests. Never content to be a “bystander,” the summer she became ill, Mom was planning to teach a community college course on how to share family stories.
Outside the genealogy community, Mom led a women’s Bible-study group, helped organize a local craft show, and served on her homeowner’s board. I have never known a time when she was not an active volunteer for some cause or organization.
Pretty much everything I learned about service, I learned from my mom, but she wasn’t born into a family of public servants. She invented that role for herself as a young wife and mother with time, energy, and talent. By example, she taught my sister and me, and our friends too, that volunteerism was more than a way to fill the hours of a housewife’s day.
1. Anyone Can Be a Volunteer
No special skills were required to be a Girl Scout Leader, although patience and crafty creativity were a definite asset. While we mastered knots and camp cooking, Mom fine-tuned her leadership skills. She became an effective leader and trainer of adults — no small feat for a Kansas farm girl turned suburban housewife.
2. Volunteering Gives Back
Everyone on our block in Orange County, California looked like a perfect 1960’s television family. Dads went to work, Moms stayed home with the kids and played bridge one day a week and bowled in a morning league on another. Looking back, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.
When our parents’ marriage broke up a decade later, Mom needed to earn a living immediately. Except for a brief stint as a telephone operator and a job serving chicken dinners at Knotts’ Berry Farm, she didn’t have much job experience.
But volunteer experience she had aplenty. Mom looked at the hours and depth of all her different service positions and found a new career as director of the county volunteer agency that placed volunteers in various local projects. Every management and organization skill needed for that job she learned as a volunteer for church, scouts, and school.
3. Act Confident, Even When You’re Scared to Death
I have to think that Mom must have been nervous or hesitant about taking on responsibilities at times. But she never showed it. She pushed ahead like she had an M.B.A. tucked inside her purse.
A friend still reminds me of the conversation she had with Mom about dressing for success. Mom told her to “Put on your Power Tie and get to work!” She built a wardrobe of nifty double-knit suits and colorful neck scarves.
4. Know When To Let Someone Else Have a Turn
My mother was a good cook, and I often raised my hand when the teacher asked for someone to bring cupcakes or other treats for a school event.
I especially remember a play in the school auditorium where we sold cupcakes from a tray strapped around our neck like a hot-dog vendor at a ballgame. Each girl got to decorate her own tray — an empty cardboard box from a case of soda. My favorite colors at the time were pink and purple, and I was sure that my psychedelic motif portrayed with crepe paper and tissue-paper flowers would motivate great sales success.
To enhance the overall theme, we frosted the cupcakes with a mountain of pink and purple frosting. The effect was nasearux, sort of like falling into a drug-induced dream, and the cupcakes were a hard sale.
The next time I volunteered to bake cupcakes, Mom gently but firmly told me it was time “to let someone else have a turn.” I was crushed.
It wasn’t until many years later, when I was grappling with yet another request to serve on one more volunteer committee, that I recalled the wisdom in her words. Sometimes, it’s a good thing to step back and let someone else share the opportunity and pleasure of service. So many people never raise their hand because someone else beats them to it. It’s okay to let someone else have a turn.
My mother’s experience isn’t unique. Women have turned to volunteer work for generations as a way to find self-fulfillment and personal value in service to others outside the home, and learned marketable skills along the way. Our female ancestors likely served their communities too, maybe not in a formal capacity, but in quiet ways that served a need.
Do you come from a family of volunteers? If you have a lesson or two to add to my list — please leave a comment below or on The Family Curator Facebook Page.