Please Don’t Volunteer On Thanksgiving: A Former Shelter Worker Tells All

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I understand where you’re coming from, all you good-hearted, liberal-thinking queer women who want to spend Thanksgiving as volunteers at a homeless shelter—or some other place set up for people less fortunate than you. Dishing up pie and turkey to the needy seems like a good way to spend a holiday during which we all (except perhaps Native Americans) are supposed to evince gratitude. Plus you don’t relish another year spending those long hours stuck with your family. Deep down you might be hoping that when you’re at the shelter you’ll meet An Interesting and Compassionate Person, also a volunteer, standing next to you and your vat of mashed potatoes in the kitchen line. You chat while she, he or ze dishes out the stuffing, and she, he or ze loves Wye Oak, Audre Lord and Mad Men too! You both turn out to have the same—at times inappropriate—sense of humor, and as the day winds down, share a secret laugh at something the others in the kitchen line don’t find funny at all. And of course that person is also someone who never feels so much like a misfit as when she, he or ze is with her, his or hir own family, the reason she, he or ze volunteered on Thanksgiving in the first place. Maybe the two of you, would, after your shift, go out together for a beer at the last non-gentrified bar in the neighborhood, exchange numbers and eventually pair off into your own little family, so you won’t have to worry about your Thanksgiving plans ever again.

I used to work at the homeless shelter that on Thanksgiving was the place for people in my city to volunteer and for politicians and high-ranking clergy to indulge in photo opportunities. Every year, for that one day, the shelter was overrun with a battalion of volunteers, so many they needed some of their own—the ones who had been there on previous Thanksgivings—to help direct their herd through the kitchen and the dining room. The other counselors and I would look at each other and laugh. We understood that these people meant well, but there were so many of them sometimes they were just doing busy-work. Everything that needed to be done—which was a lot: Thanksgiving was a huge undertaking at the shelter—had already been attended to. Remember that picture during the presidential campaign of the lizard-like Paul Ryan “washing” a clean pot at a shelter where the meal was over and all the homeless had already left for the day? I couldn’t muster the outrage that others did because that photo reminded me of every Thanksgiving at the shelter.

Which famous faces showed up to “help” at my shelter the fourth Thursday in November? Everyone: the mayor I had once protested with Queer Nation, but who, to his credit, has also come to the shelter on days of the year when no photographers were present. Despite his nine years in office, during which he always said the right things about the homeless, he never implemented policies that helped them in any substantial way. And more recently the now lame-duck Republican senator, who, with one hand, voted to cut benefits like food assistance that were meant for the same people to whom, in the shelter, on Thanksgiving, he used his other hand to offer plates piled high with turkey and trimmings. Helping to push through affordable housing measures would have been a better use of the Mayors’, the Governors’, the Senators’ time, not to mention a more lasting boon to the homeless, but it wouldn’t have made for such a camera-ready moment.

I remember when the Cardinal, the same one who Queer Nation also held protests against and who later resigned in disgrace for reasons that had nothing to do with his homophobia, sauntered into the dining room to serve stew. His manner toward the residents was like that of Louis XVI toward the peasants—and now I think: what if he had instead stopped the archdiocese from selling prime property to luxury condo developers (because if the church had any plans for that money they were crushed by the massive child abuse settlement incurred some years later)? What if he had donated a few of those closed churches and empty rectories as permanent housing for the homeless? My strongest memory of that day might then not have been after the Cardinal left, when a fellow queer (a lot of us worked at the shelter) turned to me to say, “Wasn’t that the biggest thrill of your life, seeing him here in person?” We rolled our eyes in unison.

My point is: on the day before Thanksgiving, the day after and the 362 other days of the year (including Christmas) hardly any volunteers, well known or not, showed up to help. So please, kick back this Thanksgiving and enjoy a good meal guilt-free (or attend an anti-colonial protest) with friends if your family get on your nerves. Then go volunteer at the shelter another day—weekly or monthly, because like any other activity—biking, dancing, fucking—you’ll be more skilled if you do it more than once a year.

You probably won’t be in food service—in the shelter where I worked, the residents who were part of the sober work program did those jobs every day that wasn’t Thanksgiving—but ladling out corn and peas probably wouldn’t be the best use of your abilities anyway. If you’re a lawyer, spend some time with homeless people who need legal help. If you’re a teacher, find out which skills the homeless people at the shelter would like to learn. And even if your talents don’t seem to line up neatly with the needs of those you meet, after you talk to and listen to a few homeless people, you will have a whole list of possibilities—a ride to a job interview or to the courthouse, accompaniment to a doctor’s appointment or social security office. After a year of sitting in traffic and waiting rooms you might find that volunteering isn’t the simple one-time, feel-good exercise you thought it would be. You might find some of the people you are trying to help irritate the fuck out of you. You might find some of them frighten you. You might decide your efforts would be of better use if you worked full-time on the issues that cause homelessness in the first place—and change your career path accordingly. You might find that Interesting and Compassionate Person you hoped to meet is, only a year later, you.

You can volunteer to help homeless queer youth in NYC at New Alternatives. The Ali Forney Center, a drop-in center for homeless queer youth, also in NYC, was devastated during Hurricane Sandy. You can donate to the Center. To volunteer there (they have a temporary new home) you can email volunteer [at] aliforneycenter [dot] org. You can best help other folks affected by Sandy by going here. There are links to both volunteer and donate . There are, of course, a lot of other organizations across the country that help the homeless and needy and that could use your time. Just do your homework first, since some of them have religious affiliations which prevent them, for example, from giving out condoms (to a population very susceptible to HIV infection).


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Writer, producer and performer who occasionally projects "radical" slogans on the sides of buildings-- -- and is starting to make films. I am looking for other queer women writers and gender nonconforming writers who are interested in adapting their nonfiction work or poetry into short, simple (but beautiful!) films that will be part of one feature-length film made up of shorts: "Ten Tiny Films". @renjender on Twitter

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  1. Thumb up 7

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    Thanks for writing this! I volunteer for two community organizations and I see this all the time.
    Often people think their feel-good voluntourism vacations and weekend activism is helpful in changing the world, it is, I don’t want to knock it. But helping others is not something to put on a cv or to use as social capital — it is to make a positive, long-lasting impact on lives and communities. If we are to volunteer, we should pick a cause and devote whatever we can to it as a whole person – not just when its convenient or comfortable. Otherwise, where does the change happen?

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      Ughhh voluntourismmm… it is most hurtful when it involves children. In places where voluntourism is a big industry some orphanages and children’s homes are kept destitute because it brings in more money. It is really psychologically damaging for children who have already lost or been separated from their families to have privileged college students come with the intention of making ” meaningful connections.” They shower these kids with affection and then leave a few weeks or months later, constantly reinforcing their abandonment. They don’t receive proper feedback on behavior because volunteers just feel soo bad for them. Sorry to anyone who has done it, but its true. I agree with the author that a lot of people volunteer without thinking enough about why they’re doing so and whether they are truly doing good… But I wouldn’t necessarily discourage all holiday volunteering.

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    To be fair, it varies. My college has a student-run homeless shelter, and the overnight before Thanksgiving is one of the hardest shifts to fill, because people are at home for the holidays.

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    I used to work with the homeless and I spent a holiday at our center serving dinner to the community mostly to avoid my own family and hopefully meet new people. It was nice, but also small scale and lacking in the photo-op department. I volunteer at Planned Parenthood during the holidays wrapping presents, and I have been Santa’s elf at breakfast with santa for inner city kids. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of time in between work and school to give back, but I try to use the days when I am most blessed to share my fortune with others. Obviously I think volunteerism ought to be observed everyday, but I don’t think everyone is there for the picture in the paper or the addition to the resume, or at least I wasn’t.

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    I don’t necessarily agree with you.. I think some volunteering is better than none.. and there is always a second motive to doing anything whether you volunteer on holidays or during regular days..

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    This article should be titled: Please Don’t Volunteer At a Homeless Shelter on Thanksgiving, instead of telling people not to volunteer anywhere. I’m 1000% sure that there won’t be an overflow of volunteers at the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. There are thousands of people who REALLY need bodies out there right now.

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    I understand the desire. Some of us may find ourselves without family on the holidays. Especially on that first year after you decide to be you and we’d like to volunteer because it’ll make you feel less alone but all the spots are full. State run nursing homes are a good place to look. I sued to volunteer there during the holidays. It’s a sad place so I suppose they get less offers for volunteers in general but the residents couldn’t be happier to see your smiling face.

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    On behalf of the many people who have thought about spending their day off doing something other than stuffing our faces, thanks for equating us with homophobic churchmen, money-grabbing mayors, and Paul Ryan.

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      She’s not, she’s simply pointing out that for some people there’s a lot of hypocrisy involved in volunteering, and for those who are truly wanting to be altruistic and give back it’s actually a lot more helpful to do it on a less popular day.

      I think a lot of the negative responses here are coming from people who don’t want to think about why they’re volunteering- that maybe deep down it’s for selfish reasons like escaping family, feeling better about yourself, meeting people etc.

      Is it really so offensive to be asked to help instead on another day of the year?

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        Wait, are you saying people shouldn’t ever volunteer if it’s for selfish reasons?

        Because, really, who gives a fuck why someone is volunteering? We’ve all heard ye olde “Intent isn’t magic” lecture, yeah? Well, it works both ways.

        That said, pick a time and an activity that would actually be helpful.

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        It’s hardly a great revelation that people do good things for selfish reasons, nor is it a surprise that people can do something “good” like volunteering and also do “bad” things like discriminate against LGBT folks or fail to support housing for low income people. The author questions the motives of these volunteers from her lofty position as a staff member who isn’t there for such shallow reasons as escaping the family or looking good in public – no, she is there because she is paid to be there.

        I just didn’t see the point of this piece. If it was to tell people to phone before turning up somewhere to volunteer, I am surprised that people don’t do that kind of minimal check. If it was to encourage people to volunteer… well, I would have to assume some sort of aversion persuasion was going on. If it was to get people to think about why they are volunteering, frankly, who cares? If a deed does some good, does it make it “less good” if the motivation was not entirely altruistic? I volunteer with an animal rescue, and to be honest, I couldn’t care less why the other volunteers want to help out. If some politician wants to adopt a cat or make a big donation to gain social capital, I am happy for them to do so. There are more than enough people out there doing nothing.

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    err, to everyone arguing above, why not phone the organisation in advance and ask whether the holiday is a time when they are short on numbers and in need of volunteers? if it is, you’re good to go, if not, then you can think about some other more appropriate ways to give back to the community this holiday season.

    Ren I really liked what you wrote about finding volunteer work used our talents and abilities. I used to work in a community organisation where my job helped people but just totally different from what I enjoy and am good at. I felt so guilty when I found myself disliking what I was doing because I thought I should enjoy making a difference. I realised then that I wanted to contribute using what I am trained for and love (law) and I have moved toward that, but always felt selfish about it. Your comment about putting one’s talents to good use makes me see it differently though :)

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    I agree a bunch of the author’s points, but I can also understand why some people might feel a bit slighted, especially given the way some of the points were phrased.

    I also agree with what people have said here about times and places and means for helping. I would also add ‘people’ to that list – it is not just those who are homeless who need aid. For example, my girlfriend and I participate in a local grocery store program where we buy a Thanksgiving dinner for a low-income family (specifically, a family barely scraping by, experiencing hardship) who might night have the means, resources, or time to prepare a big Thanksgiving meal. We will never meet whoever got the dinner we bought, but I hope that it made someone’s Thanksgiving somewhere happier and a slightly easier time for them. If you think that’s selfish hypocrisy, I don’t really know what to tell you other than ‘You’re wrong.’

    Melissa at Shakesville talks about teaspooning (not to be confused with regular spooning!), and while she discusses it in terms of political activism, I think that philosophy can be applied to volunteering (whatever means, whatever size) as well.

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    Just call the shelter first! Where I volunteer we actually need volunteers on holidays because the regulars sometimes go out of town or have other obligations. Actually, a lot of our volunteers are college students who have to leave the dorm and go home over breaks, and they can’t get back up here otherwise. The men at the shelter make beds, do laundry and clean everyday as “rent” and if volunteers can come in and do those things, it can mean the residents actually get a holiday off. Sure, not everyone can go prepare food in the kitchen like in the movies, but someone can run to the store and get coffee when they run out or mop the floor or sort donations. I guess what I am saying is, some places really need help on holidays, so just call and ask, and then go back next weekend too when it’s just a regular day.

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    I wrote a whole rant about this but in the end deleted it because *HULK SMASH RAGE* or something. And then I wrote it again. Enjoy!

    I think the ultimate irony is that in pointing out other people’s attitudes towards volunteering you are highlighting your own hypocrisy.

    “The other counselors and I would look at each other and laugh” because all those “well-meaning”, “good-hearted”, “liberal-thinking” people who are, I think the phrase is, ‘fairweather’ volunteers are somehow less than the hardcore ones like you? I’m sure your motivations for doing what you did were completely justified and it’s not like you got anything else out of it, like oh, I don’t know, patting yourself on the back, laughing at people who pat themselves on the back, writing articles about laughing at people who pat themselves on the back.

    I would have appreciated this article if it was only about skeezy politicians who use these places about photo ops, but it seems that you’re also trying to shame regular people who don’t do what you think is enough or for the ‘right’ enough reasons.

    I would say every little helps, and even if it’s only once a year it’s better than nothing. If someone doesn’t do it for the rest of their life because they’ve paired “off into [their] own little family, so [they] won’t have to worry about [their] Thanksgiving plans ever again.” so what?!…I notice you’re a ‘former’ worker? Does someone have to do something 365 days a year, every year for the rest of their lives for them to be worthy of your respect?

    It’s really disingenuous to tell people not to volunteer at this time of year. A lot of organisations and shelters work extra hard this time of year (one near me is ONLY open this time of year), or others like Pride only take place once a year- and they do have people volunteering all year round but they need loads of bodies on the day otherwise it could. not. happen.

    Basically what I read was “Don’t do something that’s actually good and helpful once a year because we who are actually virtuous will roll our eyes at you, because we do it 24-7 bitch and not ONE of us feels the slightest bit good about it. Also organisations will have TOO MANY EVUL PEOPLE VOLUNTEERING and can’t possibly find some way of scheduling who and how many turn up and saying no to any of them”

    I hope to never be part of an organisation where someone would look at me with the same lense that you view these volunteers.

  12. Pingback: Friday Links, 11/30/12 « Tutus And Tiny Hats

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