I’m in the midst of collecting stories about volunteering for the second volume of The Social Cause Diet  and a random email arrives, stating a desperate need for a “caller” for square dancing. I read that a large group of college International students, mostly Asian, have been promised a night of The Virginia Reel, yet no one has found a caller, not to mention the music, and the event is just days away. I’m about to delete the email because I see that it has been sent to many people, and surely someone else can do it. The familiar “someone else survival skill” may keep us out of trouble, but it also tends to keep others in need.
But this is a silly need, I think; there are far more important things that appeal to the volunteer in me. Yet, I pause, I am from Virginia. This hardly means that I am more accomplished at The Virginia Reel, but it is a slight connection. And, come to think of it, I was a loud, upfront, enthusiastic cheerleader years ago, and I’m still a leader at heart (even though I work alone in a home office with no employees, no sports team, no nothing but a family of other leader personality types who would rather I not tell them what to do).
If I send a flippant, “Sure, I’ll be your caller at your square dance full of students who barely know our language, much less antiquated dance steps,” it would be the most odd volunteer effort in my life-to-date. I have often volunteered my time and skills in areas that align with my business as a graphic designer. Skill-based volunteering, it is called. I also volunteer where it is entirely expected of me—that would be at my kids’ schools. As any parent knows, if you don’t volunteer where your child goes to school, you will feel shame now and regret later. I pity these parents because they usually have good reasons not to volunteer—like sixty-hour work weeks or younger toddlers and aging parents to care for—but that doesn’t seem to excuse them from the shame and regret. Life isn’t fair.
But back to the matter at hand, I email, “I’m your girl,” and a flurry of people reply in elation. Then there are frantic emails about the music, which I find in 5 minutes on iTunes. More jubilation. Rather than feeling slightly concerned that I might not live up to their enthusiastic expectations, I start to get excited myself.
Today is Sunday. Sunday is a time to be with loved ones, but my husband runs off to his office. Rather than complain, I happily search the web for a refresher course on how to do the Virginia Reel. My daughter, a magnet to music, soon joins me and we start swinging around the house. This is going to be a lot of fun. Another email arrives, asking if my family would like to join in the BBQ prior to the dance. Since I have two teenagers who are hard to keep adequately fed, I sign us all up for the free dinner. Already I am feeling a trickling of blessings for giving in this light-hearted way.
The big day arrives. To my chagrin, I slept horribly the night before and can barely say without stuttering “Swing your partner,” “Sashay down,” and “Do-si-do.” I’m not too worried though, because a true cheerleader-type rises to the occasion when a crowd gathers. I don my bandana and overalls, and my fifteen-year-old puts on his cool black cowboy hat, pleased he finally has a reason to wear the one thing he has ever bought on impulse. My daughter is happy that brother will be forced to be her partner. They have a great time together when there are no other options.
As I explain the dance to over eighty eager faces, someone whispers in my ear a kind suggestion to talk more slowly. English is the second language here, if that. I proceed, stomping around on stage to demonstrate. The young adults learn amazingly well. My boy later says that he messed up more than anyone, even though he had done the dance before and could understand what I was saying. I am glad to know that my son can understand me. That is encouraging.
Seriously, whenever I volunteer, I am repeatedly surprised by the blessings that come of it. Two impressed me this night. One, the face of a warm Asian man that smiled at me the whole time I called out. Whenever you’re on stage, if one person in the audience looks receptive, you are emboldened. This cheerful man was older, maybe a teacher, but he beamed and I took it in.
Secondly, the connections I made with those hosting this extravaganza. Julie, for example, had been there for hours, and she was still going strong when I met her. Actually, I have seen her many times before, Sunday after Sunday at church, but in an hour of serving alongside her, all of a sudden, I knew her. Something about the vulnerability required as a volunteer speeds up the process of getting to know others. You are putting yourself out there and you are out of your comfort zone. Maybe you are relying not so much on your skills as on your love and concern for other human beings. Maybe it is the automatic appreciation everyone has for one another because we know we don’t have to be doing this. Regardless, whenever and wherever I volunteer, I develop relationships with people that would take years to make in other circumstances. I take that back: they wouldn’t even happen in other circumstances.
If you’ve yet to experience this, I encourage you to volunteer, get out of your comfort zone, and swing your partner.
Originally published on Gail Perry Johnston