gail schimmel

The blog of writer Gail Schimmel: A bit of writing, a bit of parenting, a bit of thinking and some book reviews

An unintentionally serious post about voluntary work

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My relationship with voluntary work started at High School, when me and a small group of friends volunteered at a shelter for street children. Of course, we didn’t think that we were doing voluntary work. We thought that we were being Young Revolutionaries and Standing Up To The System and Fighting The Good Fight. It was 1990, we were at a government school, and we didn’t have the balls to sign up with the nice chap from the ANC youth league who kindly indulged our revolutionary spirit by having a coke with us at Zoo Lake. So instead, we kicked a ball around with street children, and even occasionally read to them and helped them with their maths. That Golden Era came to an end when a group of American Missionaries chanced upon us and wrote to our headmaster to tell him what fine young people we were. We would have liked the story to end with the headmaster calling us in and Forbidding us from our Revolutionary Ways. Instead, he heaped praise on us at assembly. It just killed the magic. Maybe he knew it would; maybe he really thought we were fine young people.

By the time I started university, Mandela was free and frankly, I’d missed the revolutionary boat. I stuck to what I knew and got involved in every vaguely politically inspiring volunteer programme. I taught workers and scholars and I trained as an election monitor (not to be confused with actually serving as an election monitor, of course). I volunteered like a crazy thing for my first year, and then lost my revolutionary fervour (from exhaustion I suspect) and joined the infamous ski club instead. The rest of university is a blur of alcohol induced embarrassment.


But the state of the world has stirred that old sense of duty, and this year I started doing voluntary work for a reading programme that you can read about here:

I do two hours a week and I know it’s a fabulous cause that has great results and I really would encourage all of you to sign up – because you can help without having to go into dodgy areas and it is very rewarding – and please don’t be put off by what I say below, because it is wonderful.

But the thing that has changed from when I was a starry eyed Revolutionary and now is the difference that I feel I am making. Back then, I thought I was saving the world. And now, it’s like I’m throwing a grain of sand into the ocean. The problem of education in this country is so vast, the difference between the education my son is getting and these kids that I help is so unbridgeable, the needs of the people are so great and so unmet that I just want to lie down and cry.

I come home exhausted and depressed and hopeless, and I can’t focus on my own work. And it’s harder to volunteer when you are already stretched between a business and children and whatever-it-is-my-writing-is. And whenever I think that I need to find a way to make my life a bit easier, it’s the voluntary work that floats to the top as the thing that can go.

But if I let it go, then I’ll be back to making no difference. Instead of throwing one grain of sand in the sea, I’ll be throwing nothing. I’ll feel a little bit worse about my role in the world.

I don’t know if I’m sticking with it out of altruism or out of selfishness. Hell, I don’t know if I’m sticking with it at all. But I’m not sure what the alternative is, in a country where the powers that be don’t seem to care.


One thought on “An unintentionally serious post about voluntary work

  1. Thanks for such a wonderful piece of writing and also for being one of the grain throwers . You rock.

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