My name is Illeana Alexander and I am the AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer and Development Coordinator at Make Way for Books. My role at Make Way for Books is mainly volunteer coordination and communication, along with a spattering of event planning, donor outreach, grant writing, and marketing. Though I am involved in multiple projects, volunteer management is really at the heart of what I do. Make Way for Books did not previously have a program or person in place to manage and schedule volunteers, making it a task that required my attention. Admittedly, I was unprepared when I first started. I had never managed more than 100 volunteers at a time and only for one-time events. My site boasts an impressive average of 400 volunteers a year who help us with everything from simple office work to reading at preschool centers. It took me months to familiarize myself with the volunteer opportunities before I could successfully handle the volunteer on-boarding and organization process.

Now I can handle groups of volunteers on top of regular weekly or monthly volunteers with ease. As I get more comfortable with my role and more people recognize me as their go-to person for volunteer needs, I find myself settling into a new routine. As a VISTA, I don’t get to spend most of my time doing direct service, but in the process of facilitating direct service for other people, I get to learn more about why other people volunteer and what it means to them and then reflect on what I do and why.

Recently we had a class of middle school girls come to our building. It was an intimidating size and age group, made more nerve wracking with the knowledge that I had never worked with the school before. For just an hour, what can twenty-something seventh graders get done? How much supervision will there be and how do you figure out quality control if you give them crafts? I spent probably too much time figuring out how to lay out crafts and give directions. Normally I cap groups to smaller, more manageable numbers, giving me more leeway to interact and lend a hand as needed. Despite four months of confident volunteer management, I was ridiculously anxious about this particular volunteer group.

When Friday rolled around, I was swamped with my own work and the building was buzzing with families who had come for Friday Storytime. My volunteer group was late and I had a few surprise volunteers show up so I was stuck debating what I would do next. When half an hour rolled by and the middle schoolers hadn’t come and the teachers hadn’t reached out to me, I handed off half of the duties set aside for the group, so the individual volunteers had something to do. As I started reassigning tasks, pleased with how I was handling the turn of events, my group showed up.

Twenty-one students shuffled into our entryway as I scrambled to get my bearings. I had jumped the gun on giving away projects and had to hurriedly reorganize my plan of action. My original intention was to split the group up so not everyone was cooped up in the back, cutting felt hearts and paper valentines, but I had given away all the outdoor activities. I wasn’t sure much would get done in cramped quarters with a lot of chatty kids, but again, they surprised me. It took some effort to corral everyone through our building, but once everyone was standing around the work tables they quieted down and waited for instructions. I didn’t have to fight for attention or even repeat myself. The girls delegated work amongst themselves and set up assembly lines, finishing what I had estimated to be an hours work in just under half an hour.

They talked while they worked, amongst themselves and to me. They were curious about Storytime and if they would be able to host a book drive for us; some girls wanted to know what my job entailed and if I liked it; a few girls were curious about me personally, though it was mostly the teachers who were interested in my age and educational background. They continued to chat, even as I called time to clean up and get ready to go. Amongst their polite goodbyes I was also left with some emails and a small handful of filled out book drive request forms.

I had been wound so tight worrying about how I was going to keep the situation under control with time restraints and activities, I hadn’t given the girls the benefit of the doubt. I had been hyper focused on what I would do and how I would have the volunteers do something, but not on who was volunteering or why. I had discounted their skills and interests in favor of my volunteer organizational model.

The girls had chosen to spend their free Friday morning volunteering in the community instead of having extra recess time or a game day. It astounded me that they had chosen to share their time this way. Even with their tardiness, they were dedicated to finishing the work they had promised to do and most of them expressed an interest in coming back or otherwise continuing to support us.

My experience with those girls gave me an opportunity to sit and reflect on my work and my personal values. This position has really pressed me to work on my flexibility and organizational skills, but I have not pushed myself to change how I interact with volunteers. I can always make more effort to consistently reevaluate my perception of others and take into consideration their point of view. Volunteers willingly share their time, effort, and expertise to make the community a better place and it’s important to recognize that.

My passion for volunteering is what drew me to AmeriCorps and the passion that volunteers have for Make Way for Books makes my own service just that much richer and more meaningful.

By Illeana Alexander, AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer and Development Coordinator at Make Way for Books