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Volunteer Wisdom: 7 Ways to be a School Helper Without Losing Your Balance

Every parent has been there. You are attending a parent meeting for your child’s class, sport, or extracurricular activity, and here it comes: the pitch to pull in parents to volunteer. If you are shy, your palms may start to sweat. If you are feeling busy, you might have a knee-jerk no-can-do response. If you have had a recent bad volunteer experience, you may be thinking, Never again.

But you are informed, and you know about all those studies that say children of involved parents enjoy school more, make friends more easily, and experience increased academic success. So, doggone it, what’s a reluctant parent to do when asked to volunteer at school for the umpteenth time?

1. Start small and increase involvement over time. There is something to be said for understanding the lay of the land before you make a full commitment. Rather than jumping in with both feet, why not dip in a toe and get a better sense of who does what? Chances are good, if you pitch in a little, you’ll notice not-too-taxing ways you can give more next time. Let a coordinator know at the end of one volunteer cycle if you have your eye on a specific role next time or indicate to the coordinator that you’d like to become more involved.

2. Know your strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses. Whenever I bring my natural skills into the volunteer process, I feel more confident and empowered to make good things happen and I get work done quickly and cheerfully. Try to align what you are already good at or passionate about with volunteer commitments. You don’t need to explain your strengths and weaknesses, you can make wiser decisions about how to contribute if you examine your skills first. For example, if volunteer coordinating gives you headaches, take a behind-the- scenes role, if that’s where you can excel.

3. Step up and offer your spectrum of skills. Sometimes school organizations have job descriptions to fill, but these roles are seldom written in ink. Have a conversation with volunteer coordinators about what you can contribute and how much time you have to offer. If you can see yourself succeeding at an offered task, say yes. If you cannot, ask for another assignment. If asked to do something you think you cannot pull off, the onus is on you to take a pass. Trust that someone else will step up. This is no time to try to please the coordinator or impress the other parents.

4. Create a calendar of manageable commitments. Once you make a commitment to volunteer, call a family meeting and discuss how your plans will affect the rest of the family. Will you be away from home on Wednesday nights, need someone to pick up your after-school carpool, or need your mate to pick up dinner on the way home from work? These are all good things to anticipate in advance, as much as possible. If you have more than one child, be mindful of over-committing to too many volunteer responsibilities all at once. To avoid accidental overlap, let the coordinators know what times of year you are available for each of your kids.

5. Be flexible and expect the unexpected. Don’t be surprised if the volunteer commitment you expected to be a cakewalk turns out to be full of unanticipated challenges. If you were in charge, things might be different, but chances are good that you are not the boss but rather, a helper. Volunteering is a great opportunity to flex skills like your ability to collaborate, troubleshoot on the spot, and not sweat the small stuff. Your goal is to suit up, show up, do your best, and walk out the door feeling good about what you contributed.

6. Raise money even if you cannot donate. Your time and energy are like gold to any organizer, so if that is what you are contributing, let it be enough. If you don’t have time or energy to offer, maybe you can open up your wallet and make a financial contribution. Perhaps friends, colleagues, or local businesses you know might wish to donate, too. If you are not comfortable in a fundraising role, make referrals to volunteers who excel at the job; everyone will be grateful if any of your leads lean in.

7. Ask for help if hardships crop up. Life happens. Despite our best intentions, sometimes a pet gets injured, a child becomes ill, or a spouse has a career setback. When we put our family’s needs first, we may not be able to fulfill our volunteer commitments as we’d hoped. All is not lost if you can communicate your limitations to the coordinators as soon as possible, rather than kidding yourself that you can still pull off everything with a flourish and a smile. If you can’t complete your assignments, for whatever reason, speak up, ask for help, and graciously hand over responsibilities to folks who step up.

Author, journalist, and writing coach Christina has been an arts educator, a publicist, a fundraiser, and a copy editor for schools. She has also gone on multiple field trips - while silently wishing she had remembered to bring earplugs.




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