What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been!

I’m sitting on the Amtrak train back from NYC right now, on my way back to Philadelphia. Since my last post, my God, how many things have happened! I don’t even know where to start to begin catching up.

There’s so much to say that I’m just going to keep it simple. In short, here are some juicy bits from the last ten days:

Learning About Volunteer Organizing

Learning #1: Step Away from the Project . . .

Next Sunday is the POWER event, and I completely fucked up.

But, unlike past me, I’ve admitted it to myself, and more importantly to others.

What happened? Well, I talked and wrote a bunch about feeling disconnected from the mission, and I blamed it on others. And in truth, I do feel somewhat disconnected. But it was only after I received a call from one of the main organizers of POWER, who read my complaints on my blog   and wanted my feedback, that I realized how foolish I was being. (And boy, did getting that call make me feel like a goody-goody third grader whose favorite teacher catches her sucked in to bullying a classmate . . . )

I felt ashamed for so publicly griping. On the one hand, I do want this blog to be a space where I am honest and reflective, even when things are a little ugly. On the other hand, these are just other good people, trying to do good. They’re not “the man.” They’re not a perfect system. They’re trying, and busting their assess, and I’m sitting back and complaining about how everything isn’t to my taste. It’s the same as when people walk into a classroom and criticize the teacher for talking too much, or using an ugly worksheet, or not explaining something well, and you just want to scream “Do you have ANY idea how HARD this is!?!?!?”

What I realized is that the real problem is I’ve been overwhelmed, and when my one method of engaging people didn’t work, I freaked out. I didn’t know what else to do. I felt like I failed. And I didn’t handle this elegantly or maturely. I should have contacted the other group members, let them know that I took on too much and that, while I would be there for sure on Sunday, I would step down from this role so that someone else could do it properly.

But my pride and guilt got in the way. I convinced myself that I’d get a second wind and fix it. And I felt so guilty about letting them down, that I was determined to find a way to turn things around. But it was like trying to stand too deep in the choppy ocean: every time I started to get to my feet, another wave would knock me down. Eventually I stayed down and tried to hide, but that didn’t work either.

And so finally, I apologized.

I don’t feel much better having apologized, but it was the very least I could do. I’m so appreciative that the other members of the group are kind and understanding, and don’t hold my flaking out against me. I look forward to Sunday being over already, so that I can go back to the group and help them with their real project, which is why I joined in the first place – helping the local Spring Garden Elementary School rebuild its library.

And the silver lining I am trying to take from this experience is what lessons I can extrapolate for future volunteering and organizing. My biggest take-away here is the importance of not having an ego about stepping down. I should have said “I can’t do this” a long time ago – or never said “yes” in the first place. But my desire to help, to succeed, to be the champion of a cause, to make things tidy, to be a part of the group and make a visible difference got in the way of my better judgment. So next time, step away before you’ve made a mess, self . . .

Learning #2: What Works for Me in Choosing Projects?

In contrast, last weekend we had our Mercy Hospice cleanup (it’s a local shelter for homeless women in addiction recovery, and their children), which was the inaugural event of the Young Friends group I founded through our Civic Association. It looked until the day before the project like it wouldn’t work – our donations fell through, volunteers weren’t signing up, and things were totally disorganized.

Luckily I have the most understanding, patient, & generous husband who was willing to spend three hours in Ikea buying all the items we were anticipating stores and neighbors would donate. With a hollow wallet and nervous heart, I woke up on Sunday hoping all would go well but not feeling very optimistic. Much to my shock, though, it did! There were eight of us who spent the morning repainting and building furniture, and now Mercy has a peaceful, clean space where they can hold their meetings, and where the women & children can go to relax.

When we were done, we went to a local bar who gave us a discount on our boozy lunch, as they’re members of the Civic, too. Over sandwiches and bloody marys we talked about what our next project should be, and tried to help each other pick paint out of our hair.

Here are some pics from the day!

The room before we started

The room before we started

Volunteer friends getting cracking!

Volunteer friends getting cracking!

Building a little table for the children

Building a little table for the children

Making everything fresh & clean

Making everything fresh & clean

Refreshing the bookcases

Refreshing the bookcases

Hanging curtains where none have ever hung!

Hanging curtains where none have ever hung!

I'm very excited about this blanket - it's a final touch!

I’m very excited about this blanket – it’s a final touch!

The new seating area!

The new seating area!

The Young Friends after a big lunch & a long fun morning

The Young Friends after a big lunch & a long fun morning

Why was my experience here so different from the POWER event? Here are my thoughts:

1. I made a personal promise
2. I met the people I was helping before the event, and had them in my mind every step of the way
3. I had ownership over this project from the start
4. There was a lot of energy & enthusiasm behind the project – both from the organization, and from the volunteers, every step of the way.
5. In the end, I was able to buy my way out of the mess, if I’m going to be honest. Can’t do that if you’re just tasked with bringing people.

So for my next foray into volunteer organizing, I’m going to keep these principles in mind:

– Delegate early, and keep the check-ins positive, energetic, & fun (we’d meet at my house and go over stuff while drinking wine & laughing, so it always felt partly like hanging out, partly like organizing)
– Choose projects where you can see the tangible difference that you make
– There needs to be a personal connection – who are you helping, what is the relationship you have with them, and why is it so important to you that you help them?
– Go in with a backup plan, in case solution #1 doesn’t pan out!

Learning to Love My Inner Hippie

#1:Coaching Training in Asheville:

This was incredible. I learned new techniques, I coached & received coaching, and most importantly I spent some rare alone time in nature, with goats and horses and this lovely stream and my friend, the peaceful bench:


I would say that my biggest take-aways were some new habits I’m practicing to manage my time better, but most importantly was the sense that I love coaching,! I want to make it the bulk of my work, and I think I might not be half bad at it. I have to say, this is really the first time I’ve felt excited and chomping-at-the-bit-ish about work in a long time. Maybe ever. I’m excited and want to start NOW! I feel not the slightest bit of caveat or vacillation about this – the certainty, of course, in its newness to me (as I never really feel certain about anything) makes me somewhat suspicious, but I don’t care! I’ve contacted a web developer to fix my site; I’ve ordered new business cards; and I’m getting ready to send out an email to everyone I know asking them to send potential clients my way! And I can’t wait!

And I just used up my exclamation point quota for the century. Go coaching!


#2: Reiki Classes

Sound the wind chimes! Release the crystals! Send for the psychic horses! Hippie Justine has arrived, looking a mix between Gandolf and Anne Frank!

Yes, I will admit it publicly: I am fully embracing my inner earth mama and I’m taking Reiki classes. Following the revelation back in January about wanting to acknowledge my “woo woo” side more (i.e. the one that believes in energy and animal communication and all that fun stuff), I finally signed up for Level I of Reiki, which is a Japanese method of healing called “laying of the hands” in other cultures/traditions. I have been practicing on myself every day, and on others when they let me (and on my dogs when they’re not looking). It’s been another thing, in addition to the retreat I went on, that seems to make April the unofficial Physical Knowledge Awareness Month. In other words, I am finally accepting that our bodies hold so much more knowledge – about who/how we are in the world – than we (OK, I) give them credit for. I’m loving the Reiki so much that I have already decided to go to Level II, and am thinking about how & where I can use my new skills. My friend Rudy mentioned a Center where folks diagnosed with HIV receive a variety of holistic treatments from volunteers – one of which is Reiki – but I don’t think I’m quite there yet. For now, I’m excited to go to my first Community Reiki Share on Thursday, which will be a venture into a new world and community!

Spruce Foundation Gala

This was my first real formal event in Philadelphia, and it was really wonderful to see the 500+ folks who turned out to support the cause of the Spruce Foundation, which is to give small grants to non-profits that serve youth in Philadelphia. I hope to be more involved with them next year in a substantive way – this year I helped to sell tickets to the party, and I was so appreciative that friends came along! On a side not, it was pretty wonderful & mind-boggling to step back for a moment, sip my drink, and watch  ten of my new buddies who supportively got tickets, in their tuxes and bowties and cocktail dresses and updos, chatting around a high top table, and think, “My God, I didn’t know ANY of these people ten months ago. How life changes in the most curious and lovely ways!” 

Alright, so that’s a bit of what the last two weeks have held – now I need to get out of my own head and start reading more about the rest of the world. Gay marriage? Background checks? Boston? Enough about me – what is going ON out there!?

Have a great weekend, all!


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