Volunteering in the Living Room - Part 2

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Today, we’re hearing from the stars of the week: the volunteers themselves!  We spoke with two volunteers, Marie and Jim, about their volunteer experience in the Living Room.

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How long have you been volunteering at the Living Room?
Jim: About 14 months.

Marie: I started in January, so it’s been almost four whole months.

What is your history with volunteering? Had you volunteered anywhere else before?
J: Before volunteering in the Living Room, I volunteered for two years at Adventist Medical Center. I volunteered when I was a teenager, too. I was encouraged to do it growing up, but it’s something that I grew to like as I’ve gotten older.

M: I was definitely encouraged to volunteer while I was in high school. Some of it was required, but I really enjoyed it.

I was also part of a long-term volunteer position at an organization that provided respite for parents of children with disabilities, so it’s been an important part of my life.

What do you do in the Living Room when you come in to volunteer?
J: I help serve breakfast and lunch. I participate in the health group from 9 to 10 in the morning. Then after, I sit and talk with the members. A lot of the time I participate with members in arts and crafts or music activities. In general, I just hang out with the members. Some members spend some time sitting by themselves and I’ll just go over and start talking with them and it gives them the feeling that they’re part of the Living Room.

M: Well, I usually end up doing dishes and helping clean up. It’s important to me that the food service area is clean. Who wants to eat food off a disorganized or dirty table? It’s not fair for anyone to have to eat like that. The members deserve a clean space too!

There are usually people who I’ll talk to everyday. They want to catch up with me and I want to catch up with them. Sometimes I’ll walk around, sit next to somebody new,  ask how they’re doing. Often, the really basic questions will turn into something more.

Why do you volunteer?
J: It makes me feel good to be able to help. I know that I can’t do a lot because I’m not an employee but I can do what I can offer and walk out of the Living Room at 11:30 and feel pretty good about it the past couple hours.

I’m getting experience, too. I’m in an alcohol and drug counseling program to become a counselor, so I’m getting to gain experience interacting with people from diverse populations. That’s exactly what I want to do. 

M: I want my presence in the Living Room to show that I want to be there, that it’s important for me to be there, and that spending time with the members is important to me. Sometimes I think, “Geez, look at me. I’m inexperienced. I’m naïve. What good can I, a 20-year-old sheltered girl, provide for the members at all with all they’re going through?” But I think about that and what I can be is someone who genuinely cares about what you’re going through in that moment and can listen. I volunteer so I can be another person who is there and who cares.

What do you feel like you “bring to the table” when you volunteer?
J: I’m not in recovery or personally live with mental illness myself, so I bring in that world from the outside. I’m learning about what the world is like for people in recovery and/or living with mental illness, a perspective I knew nothing about. How the rest of the world can sometimes treat people with those struggles. I’m hoping I can change how the world of people who don’t personally identify with those struggles treats folks who do by coming into the Living Room and treating them just as anyone else.

M: I really enjoy talking to people and getting to know people and I figured going into the Living Room and being an engaging hand in this tight-knit community would help it be stronger. I don’t feel like I have a concrete skill to share (like knitting or drawing), but I have a positive attitude and love just being there with the members.

What have you learned through volunteering?
J: When I walk down the street in Portland, I am much more aware of the humanity and stories around me. And you know, I thought I had patience. I’ve learned that I don’t have as much and I’ve learned to be more patient. I watch the social workers who come in and work with the Living Room members and I learn just from watching. How they just sit and talk and are present with them.

M: I’ve learned a lot about working with the population of people who face addictions and mental illness in their daily lives. On a day to day basis, attending a private university, I interact with pretty much the same type of people. I knew volunteering here would be different from my daily life. I’ve learned that this is a place for recovery… using this community and the hope in it as a part of recovery from addiction and mental health.

I’ve learned so much from everybody: about “social work-y” things, about boundaries, but also about the struggles that this population manages daily, and about myself.

Why do you choose to donate your time to CCC and the Living Room?
J: It is a wonderful experience to volunteer at the Living Room. All the people – both the members as well as other staff at OTRC – are so nice to work with. The members I talk with and I have great conversations.

M: It’s about giving back, but it’s also an investment about what I can learn, too. But on a daily basis, it’s about the opportunity to interact with these folks and build ongoing relationships. It’s not impersonal – I know these people and they know who I am, and I’m slowly learning more about them. I love the direct personal relationships. I’m not financially compensated, but I feel I get compensated in so many other valuable ways. The things I learn and having an impact on the environment I’m in. Just knowing that my work and my time went into something to make it better and to function better makes the choice for me.

What is an experience you had while volunteering that made you realize you were making a difference? Or made you smile, or was extra meaningful?
J: One of the members caught me right outside the Living Room. He said that he and another member were in a bit of a disagreement and he didn’t feel terribly comfortable going back into the Living Room until it was resolved. I listened patiently, accompanied him inside, and explained with him to Robin [the Living Room program manager] what the situation was, and she helped resolve it.

Afterward, Robin told me that the guy who first approached me “pretty much never speaks. I’m so surprised you got him to talk!” And the fact of the matter is, he came up to me! He looked right at me and said “I’ve got a problem. Can you can help me?” I think he knew that I could be trusted because I’m there every week. He’s seen me around hanging out with Living Room members, and maybe that’s why he trusted me.

M: Recently, there was an incident between two members that started to get out of hand. One of the members reacted really strongly. I wasn’t used to somebody reacting for intensely. But as the situation de-escalated, he opened up to some of us who were there and shared some really important stuff.

I believe that our presence was important to him in that moment. Afterward, he told me “thank you so much for talking with me. Looking into your eyes made me feel like I was human again.”

 • • •

During National Volunteer Week, we’re exploring the value and impact of volunteerism at Central City Concern through the lens of the Living Room, a program of the Old Town Recovery Center (OTRC). So far, we’ve seen the collective impact of volunteers across all of CCC programs and have also heard what two individuals who utilize the Living Room’s services appreciate about our volunteers.

Tomorrow, we’ll hear from staff members who oversee the Living Room and their perspectives on the importance of volunteers.

The Living Room is a shared, safe place for OTRC patients, many of whom are actively living with and managing behavioral and mental illness. It functions as a place for clients to come and engage in group sessions, hang out, find community, and participate in group activities. Anyone who participates in the Living Room – clients, CCC staff members, interns, and volunteers alike – is known as a member.