A volunteering story by: Chris Clason

Robert was fortunate enough that he was able to volunteer for this experience at his leisure out of the goodness of his heart (and his professional ambition) instead of being required to complete it as part of a court mandate or as a stipulation of entry into an educational institution/society of some kind. Therefore, this experience lasted all of exactly one weekend day in the fall of 2014. Family Giving Tree organizes two collection drives per year, comprised of the Back to School Drive and the Holiday Wish Drive. Robert participated in the former, given the time of year. The task seemed simple at first: take the incoming donations of school supplies and sort them into separate areas based on type/purpose, gender, and age group. However, as Robert began, he found that there was much more ambiguity in these sorting algorithms than originally let on. As an engineer, he admits that he probably was grossly overthinking the issue when we was faced with such predicaments as: ‘this yellow graphing calculator is clearly for the older age group, and goes in the math section, but what gender is yellow?’ and ‘obviously this blue pencil case is for boys, but what age group?’ By the end of the experience the gender role issues that arose were beginning to give him a headache. What if a girl wanted a blue pencil case, or loved spiderman? He did the best he could, but his feedback to the supervisor at the end was to consider adding ‘ambiguous’ bins to sort the goods.

The Inspiration

As much as Robert would like to promote his intrinsic moral fortitude in choosing to partake of this volunteering experience, he admits that some professional consideration was at play in the decision. Although helping disadvantaged kids have the supplies they need to succeed in an educational system that is typically stacked against them has a nice ring to it, it isn’t quite enough to win out against a relaxing Saturday spent perusing the great depths of the internet on the couch while Netfix drones on in the background, especially after a very long and stressful work week. However, freshly employed at this extremely large company, and on the advice of his father, he sought to begin making a name for himself to hopefully get noticed and move up the ladder faster than upside down molasses. Toiling away in his cube in his role as a software engineer doing the typical code-monkey tasks that were being assigned wasn’t really doing it, so when he saw the flyer on the pegboard in the break room advertising for participants with cute clip art, he thought this really might be his first opportunity. Later on, when he saw that the list of attendees in the Google Doc included his bosses’s boss and several other notable characters, he knew he had better not pass this up. Plus, the girl in HR who was organizing the event was pretty cute too.

The Aha! moment…

Even though Robert was dismayed to discover that instead of working side by side with his bosses’ boss, proving his leadership skills, moral integrity, and commitment to the company, it turned out that the bosses’ boss spent the whole time ‘supervising’ and hitting on the cute girl from HR, he still learned a few things from the experience. Although he did begin the work actively grumbling under his breath about his lot in life, he started to think about how he never personally had to worry about having enough paper or pencils to complete his schoolwork as a child. He thought about how much this yellow graphing calculator might mean to a preteen struggling to complete his pre-cal homework in an impoverished home that may not even have a single computer. Tangentially, he also wondered how Texas Instruments can still get away with charging over a hundred dollars for a calculator when you can almost get a whole laptop for that, but that’s beside the point. Despite being embarrassed by the professional hierarchy and social dating scene at play presently, not to mention feeling dreadfully hot working near manual labor in an unairconditioned warehouse in the heat of August, he still came out of the experience feeling very privileged, and with a bit more compassion toward the plight of the underprivileged youth living inexplicably in the heart of booming Silicon Valley.

To summarize it in three words…

  • Rewarding, Uplifting, HOT

Why should you do this

According to Robert, straight while males, fortunately or unfortunately, do not often enough face experiences that cause self-introspection and throw privilege directly in their faces for examination. This volunteer opportunity did just that, and if it may do the same for others, he believes it should definitely be undertaken, if only to make oneself more bearable to others in the future.

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