For this month's volunteer spotlight, we are turning to another volunteer who has multiple roles at Central City Concern. While Michael initially got started with Central City Concern as a volunteer at the Old Town Recovery Center Living Room program, much like last month’s spotlighted volunteer, his interest in the behind the scenes work for nonprofit organizations led to him expanding his role to include a variety of work in the Public Affairs department. Both roles are well-served by Michael’s ample ability to be an open ear to others. Hayden Buell, who supervises Michael at the Living Room, summed it up, saying, “Michael stands out as a volunteer in his ability to listen to our members and get to know them and their stories in a way that really honors their individuality. He’ll just sit down and give them space to share themselves.”
Michael was so generous in turn as to share himself with us for this month’s spotlight!
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Peter: What is your name and volunteer position?
Michael: My name is Michael Thomas Taylor, and I volunteer with CCC in two places. I’ve been at the Old Town Recovery Center Living Room since February and I’ve been helping in the Public Affairs department as well. I actually came in to talk to Susan [CCC’s Marketing and Communications Director] just because I wanted to do an informational interview, as I’m interested in moving into nonprofit work. Then Matt [CCC’s Grants Manager] said, “Hey, if you’re looking for an opportunity to help out and get some experience, you can help me with grants.” I’ve written a lot of grants as a professor, so that seemed like something that made sense. Then Susan had some projects, doing interviews with CCC clients, and blog posts.
P: So, you got most of your grant writing experience from your time as a professor?
M: Yeah, that’s one of the things you do as a professor – research, and if you want to do research you have to pay for it, and if you want to pay for it you have to write grants.
P: How did you get in to that line of work?
M: Short answer? I ran away to Europe. I grew up in the States, but I wanted to see more of the world pretty quickly. I spent a year abroad in Hungary as a foreign exchange student in high school. I wanted to stay connected with that, so in college, I started out as a music major and ended up as a German major, which worked because it got me back to Europe. I spent a year in Austria and a year and a half Germany, and then one thing led to another and I ended up doing a PhD in German. [A PhD in German] is an in-depth study of language and literature, but for me it also became a study of cultural history. A lot of my published research is in queer history or the history of sexuality, with a focus on Germany, and I branched out to do some work in curating exhibitions and communicating queer history to the public. That gave me some pretty awesome experiences and a fairly international background. I had some post-docs in Germany, and I was in France for a summer. Then my first job was in Canada, so I’ve kind of lived in lots of different places.
P: What was that job in Canada?
M: I was an assistant professor of German. I was there for five years before I came to Reed College. We loved Canada – and even took Canadian citizenship! – but frankly it was too cold. I kind of thought [Reed] would be the next step in my career, but things have turned out differently and I’ve decided to make a career change.
P: And I guess part of that change and interest in nonprofit work is your time here! What initially drew you to CCC?
M: Being in recovery myself, but I also knew lots of people who’d been helped through CCC programs. I feel really strongly about the mission, and I have friends who work at CCC. [One of those friends and I] were actually snowshoeing on Mt. Hood, and we were just talking about this career change and what goals do I have. I mentioned I was interested in learning more about social service work. He was just like, “If you want to get a sense of what that might look like, you could come volunteer in the Living Room!” We had talked about what that space looks like and the community model they have there. What I love about the Living Room is that it’s not necessarily about clinical services. It’s really about a safe space, it’s about a community in which everybody is a member and everybody participates.
P: So there’s no barriers in between people there.
M: Yeah, the hierarchy is flattened out and everyone participates equally. A lot of the spiritual tools I’ve learned from being a Radical Faerie, about holding space and community, are happening at the Living Room and I just thought that was something I would love to be a part of.
P: Any experiences that have stuck out?
M: Well, getting to know some of the people. Everybody has their own story, and some people are more open about that or not. You need to build trust and sometimes you just need to be there and be present for people, so they see that you’re there, and you’re safe, and you’re interested in them and their success.
Sometimes we color, we just sit down and color and you just kind of talk with people and see what’s going on in their lives. There’s mental illness in my family and I don’t think my family had the tools that it needed to deal with that. You know, pills were often the solution, and that doesn’t always work without some sort of community support and skills model.
It was super powerful for me to come in to a room and see people, some of whom have very severe mental illness, just have a place to be to be understood, to be accepted, to be safe, to fit in, to connect in their own particular way. That has been really powerful and meaningful. It just puts a human face to people that we all live with. We all live in the same space together. That’s important, just to recognize that.
Every morning we sit down for an hour and do a group. There’s an icebreaking question like, “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” Or sometimes something more intense, like, “What does recovery mean for you?” Everyone gets to speak, we have a stuffed bunny we pass around to indicate it’s your turn to speak. It’s often a lot of practice in holding community norms and values, letting other people speak, not interrupting, balancing “I have a lot to say” against “everybody needs to speak.” So slowing things down, and just learning how, practicing, being a community together.
P: With the client stories that you have been writing, have there been any stand out moments from the interviews?
M: You know, I am just consistently amazed at the resilience of people. That’s really powerful. I guess it’s a recovery cliché, but the stories are so different, and they are all the same. To really recognize that sameness as a source of strength and community, I think, is really powerful.
P: Being able to identify with others or see models for success?
M: And normalizing the struggles that people have gone though. So much about mental illness and addiction is about isolation, and I think breaking that sense of isolation is crucial to recovery.
P: Big or small, I think we’ve all felt that sense of relief when someone says, “No, I feel the same way, I’ve been through the same thing.”
M: I think recovery needs that. Recovery can’t happen if you’re alone; that’s why the first step is getting help. That’s why the connection is so crucial.
P: So, what keeps you volunteering at CCC?
M: I feel deeply committed to the work CCC is doing, and I’m getting some great experience. And I love the people. It’s just fun to be here and I’m genuinely excited about the work I am doing.
P: What would you say to someone who is on the fence about volunteering?
M: Try it out! What do you have to lose?
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If you are interested in learning more about volunteer positions in at Central City Concern’s health and recovery, housing, or employment programs, contact Peter Russell, CCC’s Volunteer Manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our volunteer webpage.