Suzanne Tobias

Volunteers: It takes one to appreciate one

There’s a coffee mug I’ve seen in a thousand little gift shops. It features a strawberry blond 1950s housewife with bright eyes, perfect brows, a lipsticked smile and the caption: “Stop me before I volunteer again.”

Another version, available in magnets, sticky notes, phone cases and mini tissues, features a slightly more modern woman – 1960s, perhaps? – wearing a pea coat and the same crazed, maniacal smile.

I know that smile. I’ve smiled that smile.

I’ve held the mug in my hand several times, turned it over to check the price and considered buying it before eventually putting it back on the shelf. On a scale of bitingly accurate to amusingly ironic, I decided, this particular sentiment leans too far toward the former.

I could just envision myself reaching for my “Stop me before I volunteer again” coffee mug, only to pour a cup, throw back one swig and then slosh the rest into the sink, frantic to get to the next board meeting, school dance, field trip or swim meet.

My husband, Randy, jokes that I have either a short memory or an appetite for punishment, so quickly is my transition from, “No, I can’t possibly…” to “Well, I suppose I could help out this once.”

I mean, if nobody else can do it.

We’ve all heard the refrain: Volunteers make a difference. They help neighborhoods, schools and countless organizations. They tutor, mentor, coach, deliver meals, raise money, put out fires, staff phone lines, walk dogs, lead tours, sell concessions, build houses and more. Much more.

As volunteers go, I am embarrassingly mediocre. I have friends who flow effortlessly from one commitment to the next, and the next, and the next, never losing track and seldom complaining.

They are presidents, secretaries and treasurers for numerous organizations. They have Excel spreadsheets in labeled binders. They balance work, home, school and various kids’ activities. They patiently guide newbies by the hand, send them tips via e-mail, pat their shoulders and tell them it’s going to be OK. They remain on boards longer than intended, to help navigate “transition periods.”

I admire these people so much.

And the more I volunteer, the more I appreciate other volunteers.

This summer I plunged head-first and and almost blindly into a new role as parent representative for my son’s swim team. I’d never organized a swim meet before. I knew only the basics about the summer league and how it operated. I learned as I went, relied on others and, like a kid hurled into the deep end, sloshed around and prayed for the best.

Surprisingly, that worked. But only because other parents stepped up, raised hands, helped out, answered e-mails with “What can I do?” I lost count of how many times I said, “Bless you! Here’s your assignment for Saturday…”

At a recent planning meeting for the upcoming championship, we were encouraged to remind parents of proper swim-meet behavior: Be patient. Don’t yell at the stroke judges, kids or coaches. Remember that ours is “an all-volunteer league.”

This, I’ve learned, is code for: “Complain if you must, just be ready to do it yourself next time.”

Don’t like the way things are going? Feel free to volunteer! Matter of fact, let me get your number…

Among busy parents, there’s no more frightening or effective deterrent.