When I ask why someone wants to volunteer with our ministry, I tend to hear the same responses. Volunteering makes them feel good about serving others. It is a way to build upon their faith, or God called them to it. All of these are solid foundations on which many people decide to get involved. However, signing up to volunteer was just one part of the equation. I wanted to learn what kept people coming back time and time again to give of themselves. After years of working alongside countless volunteers, I’ve identified what I call the “volunteer line of sight” theory. To understand what this is, let me share two different times of my life that illustrate how I learned its importance.
In 1987 I decided to become a certified coach for the local Special Olympics chapter. When filling out my paperwork, I ignored all rational thought. My ambitious desire to help someone less fortunate resulted in me selecting the “no preference” option for the sport I wanted to coach. My “yes” was on the table. And nothing was going to stop me from becoming the best coach I could be. They asked me to assist the track and field coaches and work specifically with one athlete. I agreed to the assignment and was introduced shortly after that to Randy.
Randy was an intellectually disabled, 21-year-old athlete who I thought was very shy as he didn’t speak much. The truth was he didn’t speak at all. I clearly remember two things about that day as the head coach introduced us to each other. First was that Randy was non-verbal. This fact was not something I had much experience dealing with. I figured I would find a way to communicate. Second, he was a distance runner.
You would think that the non-verbal challenges he faced would have been my most challenging obstacle to overcome. Yet, it was not. It was the sport in which he was participating in. I am not a runner. Let me say that again. I am not a runner and certainly not a long-distance runner. It didn’t matter though, Randy needed me, right? Wrong. What I didn’t’ know was that God was about to lay the foundation for me to learn a vital lesson about volunteering. A lesson that would serve as a basis for so many areas of the ministry that He has blessed me to lead today.
The First Day Volunteering
The first day of training went something like this. Randy required an assistive start, which I discovered meant he needed help lining up for his race. Easy enough, I thought. So, when it was time, I helped him up to his starting block, reviewed the starting procedure with him, and then told him I would be just off to the side timing him and cheering him on. The race official began giving the commands, “Runners take your mark, get set, go”! Except Randy didn’t go. Randy’s execution of the race commands went as follows. He firmly planted his feet on runners, take your mark, assumed the runner’s stance on getting set, but on the word go, he stood up straight, watched the other runners take off, and then looked to the side for me.
It didn’t matter how loud I yelled “run,” or how emphatically I made large circles with my arms telling him to “Go, go, go!” he didn’t move. I had to wait for the race to finish and watched the runners lap him twice before I could go out to the starting block. I walked over to Randy and gave him some of the best coaching advice ever delivered. “Randy, when they say go, you have to run.” Genius, I know. As you might have guessed, start after start, the same thing would happen. Ready, set, go, lead to ready, set, stand up, and look for me.
Keep Your Eyes on Me
After several race starts, one of the seasoned coaches came to me and suggested that I go through the motions myself from the sideline so that Randy could take the cue from me on what to do. I guess it couldn’t hurt, and after several failed starts, I decided to try it. Lining him up for the last practice run for the day, I said to him, “Keep your eyes on me. I don’t want you to look at anything else but me and copy what I do.” I lined him up one last time, took myself to the inside track, and assumed the runner’s stance. However, when the word “go” was given, I began running on the inside. Much to my surprise, so did Randy.
Excited and filled with pride, I stopped running and started clapping and cheering him on, which was the wrong thing to do as he stopped with me. “No! Keep running!” I shouted and clapped. But he didn’t move unless I did. So I started running again and so did he. Despite his inability to tell me what he needed, it became clear that he needed to see me help keep him moving for the next 1500 meters and subsequently the next three months. Or did I need to see him to keep myself moving?
A New Journey
Fast forward 33 years later. My wife and I have been serving in the foster care and adoption world for close to 18 years. Over those years, we have seen many things. Our family has grown by 5, experienced many challenges, celebrated numerous victories, and cried through just as many losses.
We know the feelings that come with the phone calls late at night or in the very early morning hours, asking if we can take another child. And we understand the complexity of wrestling with your logical self that says, “We already have five kids in the home, we can’t take another one,” and your heart beating strong with emotion as it justifies “What’s one more?”
In addition, we have felt the anxiety of having enough space in the home, space in the car, adding another bed, sizes of clothing, and increased grocery bills. Pepper in the child’s trauma, behaviors, additional doctor visits, visitation, and caseworkers, and our stress levels reach levels higher than we ever felt possible. It can be crushing, overwhelming, and give us every reason to politely say, “No. We are sorry we cannot take one more, child.”
Paused and Prayed
But when we paused, prayed, and listened for God’s direction, there was no denying what we needed to do. By silencing our thoughts, we began to feel something stirring in our hearts, we heard it in our minds, and we were reminded that He would provide. Inevitably, we would always take just one more placement.
We needed so much, though, and didn’t know how we would make it work or where we were going to find the resources. Like Randy, we couldn’t tell people what we needed, and in fact, we often went to great lengths to appear as though we had it all under control. The truth was we were standing at the starting block, unable to move. Someone needed to see us and begin running on the sidelines with us. We were committed to the race but desperately needed a coach to help keep us going.
God provided as He always had and always will. Our volunteers (coaches) started showing up in so many different ways. They came as prayer warriors, meal makers, baby sitters, mentors, clothing donors, and home improvement people, to name a few. With all of them bringing their unique gift to the table so that we could say yes to just one more child. Each person is blessed with a servant’s heart and a desire to volunteer their time, talent, and energy into strengthening our family. But why? To get the answer, we didn’t need to look any further than the gospel.
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things, God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.” – 1 Peter 4:10-11
Mobilized volunteers make a difference. We cannot merely stand on the sidelines shouting words of affirmation or encouragement without taking action, it didn’t help Randy, and it isn’t going to help a family in need. We have to be willing to step into the needs of those around us so that they, too, can experience the love of Christ.
Volunteer Line of Sight
I have worked with many families and children over the years and have seen the most success when we respond to them through action. So many of us do not want to be a burden to others, and therefore, we never speak out about what we need. This is especially true for so many foster/adoptive families. Don’t let them stand alone at the start of the race on the track. Seek them out, befriend them, connect with them, and learn about their needs. This is where God wants us to be, in people’s lives where they need us most.
So what is the volunteer line of sight? It is that invisible line between the one needing help and the one who has something to give. We can choose to look away from those in need, or we can lock eyes with them and affirm that “I see you.” Conversely, the person in need locking eyes with the volunteer who so desperately wants to be obedient to God’s word and allow them to utilize their gifts through acts of service. Keeping looking for one another and recognizing that we all desire to be seen here on earth. Lock eyes, see what God is doing in one another, and remind each other that in those times of struggle, God never takes his eyes off of any of us.
Runners take your mark.