Written by Joanna Nelius
This post isn’t so much about writing as it volunteering — volunteering in a writing environment.
It’s hard to get away from negativity, from the media’s preference for sensationalized news stories about police brutality, mass shootings, and dentists killing lions for fun. I don’t need to tell you that the world has its terrible parts and that social media increasingly and exceedingly amplifies those terrible parts; it’s hard to remain positive, it’s hard to remain hopeful when the people who are doing good in the world receive little to no renegotiation, or do, but their work is overshadowed by memes alluding to Bill Cosby willing to have “relations” with Caitlin Jenner. (Keeping it classy, internet. Wake me up when you are not being so predictable.)
The world could use some love from everyone’s hands; one way to make that happen is through volunteer work. One of my wonderful friends left for the Dominican Republic this past March to work on building a new literacy program in schools from the ground up, and she’ll be gone until 2017, at the very least. But, she is the only person, out of 400+ people on my Facebook friends list, who does volunteer work in any capacity. Just. The. One. At least to my knowledge. I don’t know why that is. Maybe some people think doing volunteer work is weird; I get a lot of blank stares when I tell people I volunteer. Or maybe people think they don’t have the time, but they do have the time, even if it’s a once-a-year event. Or maybe they want to volunteer, but are turned away because they aren’t needed. (This has happened to me before — feels worse than failing a job interview.)
However, I’ve found one organization that will never turn away a volunteer. For the last year I have been volunteering with a Los Angeles-based non-profit called WriteGirl. Founded in 2001, WriteGirl’s mission has not only been to expose teenage girls to different types of writing and aid in growing their writing skills, but to provide a positive mentoring experience and reach out to the at-risk population of the community. Along with monthly workshops and weekly mentoring sessions, WriteGirl has an in-schools program that reaches out to girls in continuation schools or in prison, one of the most underserved populations in Los Angeles. The organization was awarded a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award not too long ago, presented by Michelle Obama herself — how cool is that?
Volunteering has had the same effect on me as working with special needs children and living in another country; I’m more aware of different cultures, sub-cultures. I’m more compassionate and understanding. My sense of humor has changed. I feel more emotions in more polarizing extremes. I could go on, but the single most important effect volunteering has had on myself is that I am aware that I have the ability to affect someone’s life in a positive way through writing. I really experienced this (and a shock to my system) when I went with WriteGirl down to San Digeo for the annual Live Well Project. That group of girls was different then our usual crowd in Los Angeles, and it came out in their writing. Myself a few other WriteGirl volunteers helped facilitate the activities, walking from group to group, hearing what the girls had to say and getting the reluctant ones to write anything in their journal, even if it was “I don’t want to write.” Nothing was off-limits. I heard poetry about being molested by teachers, about being kept from talking to family members in prison. There were girls who were chatty, and there were girls who spoke when spoke to, in one or two word answers. In the communities I grew up in and went to college in, you hear about poverty rates adversely affecting the academic achievements of many children and teens, but unless you actively put yourself in those communities, you will never see it. You will never feel it, and once you do feel it, there is no way you cannot feel compelled to do something about it, even if you don’t know how at first. The hurt stays with you, but you’ll also meet the most remarkable people and hear the most remarkable things being written by girls half your age, things you only started writing the previous week. These girls are intelligent, talented, and already know the world is much larger than themselves. I am proud to know all the young women I have met over the last year.
The next time you are feeling down about the world’s current state of affairs, find an organization accepting volunteers. Seeing the good given back into the world brings a bit of good into yours. Take what you are passionate about and give back to your community. Or, if you are feeling really ambitious, start your own non-profit. I’m a bit of an idealist and a dreamer; one day our society will not be motivated by money, but a desire to improve our own lives and others.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The economics of the future are somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century.
Lily Sloane: No money? You mean, you don’t get paid?
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.
– Star Trek: First Contact
Oh, and those girls’ favorite activity at The Live Well Project event? Writing. They loved writing more than getting makeovers. As the WriteGirl motto goes: Never underestimate the power of a girl and her pen.