Tuesday, October 23, 2012

FEMA Corps's Day Off From Work is to Do More Volunteer Work. And It's Awesome.

Here’s the funny thing about Summit Five, FEMA Corps: We have our priorities totally backwards from the way most people tend to have theirs. Four or five days a week, our team sits in an office all day and does a) office work, b) filming and editing for random projects or c) not much, which is some people’s dream job but tends to make us feel bleak and listless. One or two days a week we pile into the van, head downtown as if to go to work, pass work, rejoice, continue to Piedmont Park (Atlanta’s answer to the Elysian Fields) or some other fun place and spend a third of the day doing volunteer work. We lift, carry, stack, sort, serve (things like tofu) and set up whatever needs setting up. That’s our vacation. And it’s awesome. How fun is that?

This familiar scene was the order of the day on Saturday, as Summit 5 journeyed into the heart of Atlanta to help set up the 22nd annual Aids Run/Walk benefit event. All of us were, and remain, hungry for physical labor; editing videos and writing statements is all very well, but it’s less direct and physically demanding than most of us would probably like. At such an event as an AIDS Walk, there are tables and chairs and boxes to move; there are hundreds of cases of water that need to grow feet and walk 100 yards, there are tents to be set up and broken down, trucks that demand to be loaded and unloaded and endless boxes of popcorn, for some reason, that formed a massive wall blocking access to a park road and had to be moved elsewhere. Enter Summit Five. I’m proud to say that twenty minutes into the workday, my immediate supervisor designated my half of the team as people he’d like to hang onto for the rest of the day, please and thank you, because we got our work done in half the expected time.

In fact, Summit 5 and an army of other volunteers helped the Aids Run & Walk burn through all its tasks so fast that the whole thing got done a solid hour early and had plenty of sitting around during it. We had army ROTC and navy ROTC, which is apparently also a thing, helping out; we had local college students and a few Americorps alums and high school students and random people off the street forming human chains and passing hundreds of boxes down the line to rest in a small mountain on the grassy roadside. You had boxes full of cinnamon-flavored popcorn flying through the air, bouncing from person to person like so many rubber balls, careening down the line to rest in a pile the size of a Hummer. Good people, coordination and a common cause apparently equal getting a lot of work done very quickly.

But the word ‘work’ itself is a total misnomer, which is what I was trying to intimate earlier on. It simply doesn’t apply. ‘Work’, at least in my mind, is something that you’re made to do by someone else; it connotes drudgery and unpleasantness. Given that I’ve worked at a pool, sold cell phones and been a communications intern, I think I’m entitled to that worldview. Volunteer activities, shall we say, are actually enjoyable on a bunch of levels. It’s great to be doing physical labor, it’s great to be doing it for a good cause, and it’s even better to be doing it with your team. I’m a little alarmed by how readily and willingly I’ve adapted to that philosophy. Who knew that people did volunteer work because they liked the feeling, not just because it was a good or necessary or valuable thing to do? I certainly didn’t, but it’s been a pleasure to learn.

I wonder if there’s a word for work that has no negative connotations. Is there a word, in English or elsewhere, that suggests ‘labor that gladdens the mind and the soul’? If pressed for a phrase, I would suggest the word that I have often ended these sorts of posts with: righteous. It really does feel like righteous work, satisfying body, mind and soul alike. And did I mention that it’s actually fun? Both the TEA Walk and the Aids Walk were genuinely enjoyable. Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes, after a whole miserable day of being a good kid and five happy minutes of being an annoying little shit, inspired Hobbes to say that “virtue needs some cheaper thrills”. Maybe both of them were looking in the wrong place.


MBuch said...

Totally groovy bro, glad your finding a most righteous path through life. Are you enjoying Atlanta? Its up there as one of my top cities to... Visit/work/live in at some point in the future. Actually posted on a ATL friends wall today, frothing with jealousy, over how hard it is going as a city.

Andy said...

Thanks dude! I certainly am--we're living in a motel in the suburbs, but from what I've seen of the city, it is universally clean, nice, pleasant and full of good places to eat and fun things to do. And Piedmont Park is seriously heaven on earth, I could spend whole weekends there.

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