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Sometimes volunteering sucks

31 Mar

You know how a few days ago I said I was going to cheer myself up by taking on a big volunteer task? Didn’t work out so well. I am a cat foster home for Austin Pets Alive!, which most of the time is awesome. They are actually the origin of the FLK (Funny Looking Kitty), my Receptionist and Director of Fun Times.

Due to my experience with kitty cat home health care during the last years of the Original Mean Kitty, I take on the serious medical cases. The cats who are on the edge, kind of dicey, may not make it through the night. So far I have been lucky–until this weekend. When I picked her up at the APA clinic, we all knew it wasn’t looking good. And by “we,” I include the cat. So Saturday morning we said goodbye to Momma Cat. May she rest in peace.

I share this with you because not all volunteer jobs are happy and exciting. And sometimes I think we forget that. If you deal with clients or issues that may not always have a good outcome, you need to keep in mind that your volunteers will grieve. We get attached. Our work matters to us. And that’s what you want to see in a volunteer, but I ask you–what are you doing to support your volunteers when something bad/sad/traumatic happens?

Remember that volunteers have feelings, too. There is a phenomenon called secondary trauma, wherein someone who is helping someone else deal with trauma or stress becomes traumatized themselves. Kind of like second-hand smoke. Staff who deal with clients experience this, too. But I think we think more about those folks and don’t remember that volunteers grieve, too. Especially if the volunteer conducts her work off site and you don’t see her reactions and interactions with clients. Volunteers are a stoic lot. We often feel overwhelmed and emotional, but don’t show it so we don’t upset anyone, especially the client we’re helping.

Prepare your volunteers for the possibilities. Volunteers are also an optimistic lot. We give our time because we want to fix things. Sometimes we can. But a lot of times that’s out of our control. Stay positive, but let your volunteers know (gently) what the possible range of outcomes may be.

Check in with your volunteers. Contact your volunteers to see how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, how they’re coping. This can be an email or a phone call if you don’t have the opportunity to check in face to face. I really think a phone call feels more personal in these days of email, text and instant messaging.

Don’t be afraid to show your emotions. Most of the time, the right thing for staff to do is hold it together. Someone has to keep a cool head, be in charge and keep things moving forward. But there is always an appropriate time to acknowledge your own feelings. This creates commonality with your volunteers, it shows empathy and it lets them know that you’re in this together. It’s comforting for a volunteer to know passion and compassion drive you in your work, just as it does their volunteer work.

Acknowledge their loss. Again, we get really attached. Momma was not my cat and she was my foster for less than 24 hours. But I feel a loss with her. Partially because it taps into memories of losing the Original Mean Kitty in November 2009, but also because…well, I think Momma deserves someone to grieve her. She hadn’t been adopted yet and so she was technically no one’s kitty when she died. As her last caregiver, I want to honor her by grieving her.

I think Austin Pets Alive! did a great job in helping me deal with Momma Cat. I feel certain they (and I) did everything medically possible for her. I also feel that they tactfully prepared me for her not making it. Both staff vets were there when I brought her in the next morning–one of whom I know pretty well and one new to both me and APA. I appreciated that they let me stay with Momma to the end, and seeing the new vet cry while she let Momma go meant a lot to me. I want a strong, unflappable vet in charge there, but I also want to know she’s connected to the animals. And I appreciated the emails and phone calls I got from other staff and even other volunteers that weekend. It does make a difference, and fool that I am, I’m still willing to take the next dicey cat that comes in.