Thursday, April 15, 2010

Why Do I Volunteer?

The most important of life's lessons do not come to you while you are managing P&L's and fretting over project schedules. They often land in your lap when you take the time (or are forced to) to sit back and reflect.

Nice Guy is this American teenager I met during one of our outreach sessions. The weather was biting cold and we were distributing hats, gloves and sweaters. He told me he didn't need any. We started talking to the other kids. He stood in a corner and then came around to ask me if he could take a cap and a pair of gloves for a homeless friend who wasn't around. I have often met kids/ young adults do not trust adults immediately. One of the first lessons homeless kids learn on the street is that admitting you are homeless makes you an easy target for predators. I thought Nice Guy wanted this stuff for himself and he was either shy of asking or lying to us. Nevertheless, I gave him whatever he needed. He told me that he lived with his aunt in Brooklyn for personal reasons. He didn't give me the details and I didn't push. I thought his eyes were misty when he asked me, "Why do you do this?" I didn't know what to say. I had started getting involved with non-profits in the US initially to find something to do with my long empty days. But you don't want to say that. You want to give a grand answer about how you want to change the world. I blabbered something inconsequential.

Suddenly Nice Guy spotted someone. He called over and handed over everything I had given him. I tried to find out more about Nice Guy. He worked at a Pizza outlet. I asked him if he made enough money. I wanted to make sure he wasn't going to go hungry that night. He told me, "I work 12 hours a day and overtime pays very well. I can even buy stuff for my friends sometimes." He had applied to college and had received an admission offer. He was going to do a bachelors degree and major in finance to get a job that, "will lead to great career." (To put things in context he was most likely planning to work through college to pay for his tuition and living expenses). Nice guy didn't want anything from the world except opportunity and he had no complaints. We shook hands and I wished him well before leaving.

When someone asks me next time, "Why do I do this?" I think I know better. I volunteer because it gives me opportunities to meet people like Nice Guy. It motivates me and makes me feel grateful for what I have. For the sake of Nice Guy I also wish and hope that Finance does lead to a great career, in spite of everything that is going on.

Book Update: SuperFreakonomics (Levitt and Dubner) – The book is an easy breezy read with interesting stories. However some parts are oversimplified such as those about climate change solutions. Often correlation is taken causation. It looks like the interest of the authors was in telling memorable stories from uncommon point of view than real research.