Parent Volunteering: FAQs, Phobias, and Freakouts

5 years ago

If you have kids in school or activities, chances are you’ve already been asked to Volunteer. And if you haven’t been asked to Volunteer yet, chances are you will be.

 Should you? Could you? Why would you?

 Listen, I’ve been a Girl Scout leader, an elementary school room parent, a Soccer Mom, a Lunch Bunch monitor, a Book Buddy, and I’m currently the Test Chair for a local skating club. (The duties of Test Chair are similar to those of a military commander planning the invasion and occupation of a small country, except with more sequins, tango music, and twizzles.) In other words, I'm nuts and need to get a life.

 In spite of that, I’m going to address the most pressing questions and qualms parents have when it comes to volunteering. You’re welcome.

Ready? Let's roll! 

1. What is volunteering? A lot of my friends are doing it and tell me I should try it, I’ll have a good time. But other friends who volunteer just look tired and paranoid. Is volunteering like smoking pot?

Volunteering as a parent generally means performing some kind of task which directly or tangentially promotes the enrichment education of children in the arts, math and sciences, social sciences, or athletics. Parent volunteering may also support and enable kids’ own volunteer endeavors, e.g. a scouting troop collecting personal care items to donate to a homeless shelter, or a skating club hosting an event for a local charity. There are several reasons why adults might be needed to volunteer in support of children’s activities. Like so:

· This year Mrs. Murray has thirty kids in her first grade class instead of twenty. Until Mrs. Murray wins the lottery and hires her own full-time aide –because she’s not getting one from the district this year - she’s asked a few parents to come in for a half hour each day to sit in the hallway and listen to children read out loud from simple texts. Just sit there. Maybe nod and say, “Hmmm!” or “Wow!” or help sound out the word though, which is a tricky word when you’re in first grade. 

· The scout troop wants to go to Washington, DC to visit the Air and Space Museum, where the boys will suddenly envision themselves finishing their algebra homework every night so that they, too, can become fighter pilots. Unfortunately – very unfortunately – it’s too expensive for everyone to take the train to DC. The leader asks parents with big, honking minivans to help transport scouts. 

· A parent of one of the girls on the U11 soccer team is ill, and the family can’t make sports a priority right now. The coach asks if another parent or two could help keep the ill parent's daughter involved by offering rides and reminders and game day snacks -not only because the soccer team needs another player, but because right now this child could really use the soccer team.

You kinda feel good already just imagining the hypothetical people who will raise their hands and say, “Sure! Sign me up!”

And just think – that hypothetical person’s hand could be your factual hand!

However, I have to be entirely truthful and admit that there’s a gently sloping, slippery downside to raising your hand that first time, and it is this: once you volunteer, you will be forever branded “the type who volunteers”. Even if you never want to volunteer again. Even if you explicitly say, “No thank you, not this time, thanks, I’m in traction from a skiing accident and can’t leave the hospital for six weeks.” Like an unknowing soul wandering into a cattle auction, volunteer organizers will take any slight signal – a sneeze, waving away a stink bug, a facial tick – that you are ready to help out again. And before you can begin to wonder what part of “No” didn’t they understand, you own a Holstein.

2. I’ve heard I can volunteer for fun and profit! Is this true?

Yes! And No!

Meaning, Yes! You might have fun…probably. But No! Volunteering will not directly put cash in your pocket. Oh sure, volunteering at the hot dog stand or bake sale might help defray band or team costs overall, and in that way save you a penny. But no, since most volunteering is done for charitable organizations with 501(c) (3) IRS tax exemption status (fancy talk for “the whole point of volunteering is to benefits the kids, and we mean all kids equally, not just your own kid mostly”), there are very few occasions – if any – when you would be getting fee-for-service without the IRS getting a tingle in its butt. So to speak. If you want to work to supplement costs for only your own kids, that's called A Part-Time Job.

However, if by profit you take a more poetic meaning - as in “benefiting all children through enrichment ” - well then, by golly, in the words of Tiny Tim, God Bless us, every one.

3. Do I need a certain hair style to volunteer?

This unfortunate typecast of volunteers with charity-ball hairdos, threaded eyebrows, and the correct modest-come-hither hem length is a notion which began with Jeannie C. Riley’s infamous song about a certain parent’s group in Harper Valley and hasn’t let up since. 

And to be sure, there are some volunteer groups which conduct themselves like an exclusive club of estrous-Napoleons posing as Talbot's ads or the Olympic Committee of Preschool Athletes. Or – more rare, but not unheard of – groups of anti-establishment, cowboy-coffee non-conformists who guffaw when you unpack your collapsible French press and celadon bean grinder 1,500 feet into the Appalachian Trail youth backpacking tour. 

In reality, many parent-run organizations are made up of a few folks who are large and in charge, and a majority of underlings who all personally feel as if they are bumbling their way from one event to the next even when they are, in fact, being efficient and Very Useful Volunteers. Somehow, it all works out and the bake sales run on time and no one comes to fisticuffs. Most people even make new friends.

Normally, if a group has asked for volunteers, it’s because the group actually needs volunteers and not because they’ve run out of people to sneer at. Even in an almost worst case scenario, there might be a ritual hazing – when during the first project you take on, you feel like a failure, an unwelcome threat, and an oddball - after which the group will wondrously and inexplicably welcome you whole-heartedly and possibly even make you a chairperson of something or other.

If other parents don’t make you feel welcome even while still asking you to volunteer, you could try chanting, “It’s for the children, it’s for the children.”

If that doesn’t work, tell them to stuff it. You can find somewhere else to help out.

4. Do I need a certain kind of car to volunteer?

No. Although, if you own a minivan, pick-up truck, or retired school bus, you will be on several people’s speed dial.

5. What will I be asked to do as a volunteer? 

Everything and anything, included but not limited to shuttling kids, hauling equipment, baking brownies (or buying homemade facsimiles), cutting construction paper shapes, taping art work to walls, chaperoning field trips, donating good used copies of Bud,Not Buddy or My Brother Sam Is Dead for fifth graders who can’t afford a paperback for class (for real), monitoring kids at recess, tracking funds for the softball team, organizing a fundraiser, organizing volunteers for a duck pond booth at the fun fair, talking to a group of girls about your career as woman in the engineering field, discussing care of sheep with 4H kids, mentoring an Eagle Scout blazing a new trail, copying papers, stapling things, making sure kids cross the street safely, encouraging a child to try reach for the next grip on the rock climbing wall, bringing twenty-four juice boxes, tutoring a young piano player, and sitting with preschoolers coloring while their parents attend teacher meetings for their older kids. And more. It’s Choose Your Own Adventure!

6. My kids are in school and sports and all these freaking activities, and each organization wants me to volunteer. What the hell?

What the hell, indeed!

Try not to feel pressured. Do what you can, when you can. And if you can’t right now, maybe you can later.

If you have any You Must Volunteer To Participate obligations that you can’t fulfill, perhaps you can bribe ask a grandparent or auntie to show up in your stead. Or maybe you share your living space with an older teen who can exchange mowing the lawn this week for running the ticket booth at the middle school play. (Bonus! If your older teen is moderately willing and able to take part in activities with much younger kids, your teen will be treated not unlike a rock star or minor goddess by the little ones. It’s actually very sweet. Ignore your teen’s eye rolls. They usually love the adoration.)

If people are still attempting to make you feel bad after you’ve offered to fulfill your volunteer duties to the best of your ability, screw ‘em. That’s not playing nice.

On the other hand, it’s probably prudent to get clear on the expectations before you commit your child to participating in a particular activity. If you anticipate conflicts, discuss them with the organizers before you start signing papers and writing checks. There may be alternatives to the hourly requirements (e.g. your work schedule better accommodates volunteering one day for six hours instead of two days for three hours) or even a cash buy out. Inquiring beforehand as to whether or not there is flexibility in carrying your share of the load might extend you some goodwill and willingness to negotiate.

7. Other grown ups can be scary and intimidating, what with their gung-ho attitudes and organizer apps that they actually use. I want to help, really, I do! But how can I ever measure up?

Be friendly. Ask questions. Take on the odd jobs that others might not want. Ask to shadow another volunteer to get to know the job better.

Don’t go in all gangbusters with new ideas for process improvement and threaten any delicate status quo – there will be time for making your mark after people get to know you and become fairly certain you aren't recording all their quirks and idiosyncrasies for a Facebook ramble.

And remember: as much bad press as some volunteer run groups get, there are exponentially more people out there who are friendly, helpful, devoted to working with kids,  grateful for your time and talent, and who will also genuinely like you.


You’re pretty darn likeable.

No matter the length of your hem.

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