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November 4, 2011 / HandsOnCorps

“I got more from a group of volunteers… than I have from people I have known for years”

You get so many memories from volunteering and it truly builds relationships like nothing else can. Some memories are uncomfortable; some are uplifting and inspiring; some are rewarding; and, some memories are just dirty. The “BIG Project” for November is back and seeing the “BIG Project” on the calendar made me smile until my cheeks hurt remembering my first experience.

The “BIG Project” is a monster undertaking that Hands on Charlotte organizes. It takes cooperation on the part of the school, volunteers and “Blue Max” (BIG Project’s corporate sponsor). For November, the BIG Project will take place at Steele Creek Elementary School in southwest Charlotte. Volunteers will help to repair garden beds, build new beds in the school’s courtyard, build benches and otherwise beautify and maintain the school grounds. Nothing brings people together like bad weather and hard work!

One of my first projects with Hands On Charlotte, much before I decided to serve as an AmeriCorps volunteer, was with the BIG Project in March 2011 at Olympic High School.

As with anything unfamiliar, my experience started off a little intimidating and, like every project since, before and after, I remember feeling good but anxious and full of apprehension. My initial reaction was to run away as fast as possible.

To be surrounded by strangers, working outside, is something that can take almost anyone out of their comfort zone. But I didn’t end up running away! I had committed to being there and I was going to get through that morning. I probably wouldn’t come back next week, but I was getting through it, I thought to myself.

It was raining that morning — it wasn’t a heavy rain but a non-stop drizzle that covers you from head to toe and makes you wonder if you will ever be dry again. It felt like walking through a heavy fog and coming out of a swimming pool — a rain that covers you in water. To make the wet and sloppiness of the day harder, we were beautifying the front of the school by spreading fresh dirt over the flower beds and areas around the trees. If you have ever worked with piles of dirt and rain, you know it is like gaining extra pounds with every step you take. Slowly, the mud sticks to your jeans and clothes as you walk. It feels like carrying an extra five pounds per extremity. Again, nothing brings people together like bad weather and hard work! While slipping, falling, and laughing at each other, we completed everything we set out to do that morning. Some of us built benches, some of us planted flowers and some of us shoveled a swamp into wheel barrels. Boys, girls, men and women, no one shied away from the dirt and mud. It is always amazing to see what people can accomplish.

Through all of this work and mud, something remarkable happened. We accidentally got to know the people working around us. Some of us spend our lives trying to protect that from happening. This day was different, Maybe it was because we were building something for a neighborhood, giving something back of ourselves. Maybe it was because we didn’t give up when we got there and saw the rain. Maybe it was because we were covered in rain and dirt and filth (some of us more than others). Maybe, just maybe, for a brief moment, it just didn’t matter what anyone thought and we allowed ourselves to be — ourselves. Whatever the reason, people opened up and the people I meet that day helped me realize something I never knew. Letting go of your insecurities and connecting to another human is something we crave and something we need to make us feel alive.

It is only when we force ourselves out of our comfort zones that we truly open up to connect, when we let down our guards and release our insecurities that we can really get to know the people around us. I showed up that morning ready to run. I left that afternoon feeling like a new person, ready to conquer anything.

Do I still talk to anyone from that day of rain and mud? A couple of them, not many, but not all relationships last forever. Ultimately, I got more from a group of volunteers that wet and rainy morning than I have from people I have known for years. And even if we never talk again, I will always smile at the memory of that day.

Sean Leto sean@handsoncharlotte.org

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