Friday, September 24, 2010

1000 Boxes (Or how to keep your volunteers happy)

I think I have mentioned before one of our favourite places to volunteer is at a local warehouse that, among other things,  packs food and hygiene boxes and distributes them across the province. We first volunteered there almost 2 years ago sorting a huge shipment of crocs which needed to be paired and were then being shipped overseas. It was overwhelming and I thought we may not have really been much help as many of our little ones liked to de-sort the already sorted piles. But they welcomed us back a few months later to pack some food boxes and since then we have made it a regular part of our homeschool co-op activities. I've lost count of the number of times we have been. My kids love to go. They work on the conveyor belt, carefully packing their cans of spaghetti sauce or boxes of cereal into the shipping box, or sorting books from our book drive, or loading the hygiene boxes onto a skid. And they always come away with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

I marvel a bit at their enthusiasm as the work can be monotonous at times. And yet this organization has truly figured out how to keep kids interested and motivated. In fact I think they could write a handbook on how to make the most of the energy of young volunteers

1) They set things up in small, doable tasks that are easy for kids to manage. Supplies are easily reachable by big and small kids, there is a sign to remind them how many of their items need to be packed, and the directions are very clear.

2) They allow for flexibility within reason. If a child is bored with putting crackers in a box they can switch with a friend, or go break down empty boxes, or stack new boxes or unload supplies for a neighbour. Small ones can help with simple jobs. Even the toddlers can pick up small boxes and put them in larger boxes or push the empty boxes to the recycling bin.

3) There is constant encouragement and cheer leading, not patronizing but heart felt, from the man who runs the warehouse. He works with the kids, making things easier for them, keeping an eye out for supplies that are running low, refilling tape dispensers, appreciating their efforts, and gently guiding them if needed. The manager of the program always makes an appearance, greets the kids and teases them about how much they have grown or who is missing teeth or who is wearing their favourite shirt again and he always says how happy he is to see them again, cementing that connection for them.

4) The kids know what the end result of their work will be. Before we start we're told where these boxes will go. They know the overall goal for the day's packing and how that fits into the bigger picture. This context gives them something tangible to help them understand that every box helps a family and that their work is valuable.

5) There is room for a child's natural enthusiasm and yet the atmosphere is created where the kids understand that we are there to help others, and that if we pack boxes with love and care and respect, the people on the other end will feel that. Our gift is not only the act of physically packing but care that goes into that.

6) They have Popsicles.
At the end of every one of our sessions, the kids do the last minute clean up and put things back in order as best they can. And then they gather for a thank you and a treat. The cost to the organization is few dollars. And yet that simple act of a gift at the end of our time helps turn rewarding work into a memorable experience. It also cements a connection that has allowed our contact with this organization to grow in such a way that my kids will often think of something and ask me if FTC could use their idea.

Today, we were the group that packed the last of 1000 food boxes to be distributed for Thanksgiving. The organization wanted to take our picture with the boxes for their newsletter. And while we were gathering the kids we were figuring that our group (in its various combinations) has probably packed at least 1000 boxes over the past year.

The kids can't wait to go back to get started on their next 1000.

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