A volunteering story by: Chris Clason

In the beginning, I was placed outside in the back taking donations. I assume that they chose me for this position both because I was a young guy with a strong back, and because I had not yet proved my useful skills beyond manual labor. Admittedly, this position was less than desirable. The people that dropped off items were occasionally ill-tempered or downright rude, and some seemed to delight in trying to sneak trash by us.

Once, I arrived in the morning to find that overnight someone had dropped off a well used old toilet as a donation! After I put in my time out back doing this job for a while, I was ‘promoted’ to come inside to sort the donations into their respective categories. They glamorized this position by referring to it as a “Treasure Hunter.” At first I was excited, as this meant working indoors in the shade instead of burning in the hot Texas sun, but I soon came to miss the fresh air.

The donation-sorting area was shaded but without AC, and the air was thick and musty with dust and terrible odors. Here I came across still more bags of trash disguised as donations, as well as truly disgusting clothing items crusted with various bodily fluids. We all wore gloves and masks with good reason! A great many items were discarded immediately, but I did find ‘treasure’ with surprising regularity.

I persevered on, and a while (but not soon enough!) I was again promoted. They wanted to bring me inside the store to be on “White Glove Patrol,” ensuring that the store was clean and presentable, but with my computer experience I managed to convince them I was more suited to putting the more valuable items up for online auction. This was a much more comfortable position, involving no contact with trash or hazardous waste, and I was quite happy doing this until my time with Goodwill ended.

The Inspiration

Although my grades were high and my prospects were bright, my high school guidance counsellor was emphatic that I should round out my college applications with a bit of volunteer experience. I thought that my actual paid work experience would fill this need, but he was insistent. I was not particularly keen on the idea, but he managed to convince my parents of this at some Teacher/Parent Conference or Back-to-School-Night, and from then on I was fated to do so.

Given my youthful apathy of the time I did not take great care with my choice of volunteer organization. The Goodwill was close to my house and I knew they would take me, so I went and signed up without investigating my options to any depth. In retrospect, this was a mistake. Many of my friends went and sought out much more interesting, challenging, and rewarding volunteer experiences, and I could have done the same. Even so, I continued volunteering at Goodwill because I had already gotten myself established there. I completed many hours of community service there, in my various positions, and I was able to add it to my college applications and write about it in my application essays.

Whether it helped or not, I can’t really say, because when it was time to apply, I was already eligible to go to my first choice university on the merit of the Texas ‘Top 10 Percent Rule,’ stating that if your grades placed you in the top 10% of your class, you could go to a state university. Regardless, I still added my volunteer experience to my application, and continued to use it in my resumes for some time afterwards as well.

The Aha! moment…

As I was just a teenage boy at the time of this volunteering experience, I was obliged whether I liked it or not to learn a great many things, about work, about life, and about myself. To start I was surprised to discover how easy it was to get started. Given my previous job interviews, it was almost odd how little was involved with beginning volunteer work. I showed up, filled out a one page paper, and was set to work out back almost immediately. Once there, standing outside in the hot sun, collecting unwanted donations from mostly my affluent neighbors, I definitely learned some humility.

It was embarrassing at times to have to greet girls from my classes, while dirty and sweaty, to unburden their parents of their discards. One benefit, however, was that all that heavy lifting gave me strength and muscle definition that I did not possess previously, so perhaps that made up for it somewhat. When I was moved inside to sort the donations my humility and respect for those that must toil under those conditions to make a living deepened considerably.

During this time and onwards I was much less likely to whine about having to clean my room, do homework, or even do inventory at my real job. I learned that work tasks could be much worse. When at long last I was promoted to a position better befitting my talents, I learned many things about online commerce. After only a few transactions I felt quite gifted indeed about the workings of online auction psychology. I discovered that pricing items very low caused people to bid them way up, sometimes considerably more than they would have paid if they had been priced fairly to begin with, presumably because the bidding process gets people invested in the ‘winning’ instead of the item.

I also became skilled in the art of photographing the items in their best light and describing them in such a way to excite potential customers and yet manage their expectations at the same time. Ensuring that the items were received by their winning bidders safely and in a timely manner taught me accountability in a way that I had not quite possessed previously. Overall, even though it was a trying experience at times, I concede that I did learn a few things.

To summarize it in three words…

  • Challenging
  • Stinky
  • Productive

Why should you do this

I certainly would recommend others to volunteer in this manner. Although I came to find out that there were other opportunities to be had that may not have been as difficult, dirty, or humiliating as I found this one to be, I confess that I may have been improved as a person because of it despite myself. In the writing of this interview, I come to the realization that this may have been what my parents had in mind after all, instead of enhancing my college applications as they claimed!

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