For several years Rita has been having first year counseling students do at least five hours of “volunteer” work with our local day treatment center for clients (or consumers) who struggle with chronic mental disorders. This year Rita is on sabbatical and so the task fell to me. To be honest, I was ambivalent about the assignment, mostly because the logistics seemed challenging. I had to arrange two separate organizational visits to the mental health center for about 15 students with different schedules before the volunteering could start and I struggled to make these happen in a timely manner. I secretly wondered if arranging this experience would be worth the hassle.
On Monday, October 29, I finally met the first group at the Day Treatment program and was emotionally transported back to the early 1980s when I was worked in a Day Treatment program and then as a recreation therapist at a 23-bed private psychiatric hospital. I listened as a staff member gave us the most unstructured orientation ever. He eventually told us that he was a “client” at the center before becoming staff. He told the students they were free to just drop in and hang out whenever. I could feel the students’ anxiety rising at the thought of just hanging out and so I asked a few questions and told a couple stories to take up time and they asked questions of their own. In an odd mix of awkwardness and genuineness and anxiety, I felt the wish to just hang out with the day treatment clients myself.
But instead of hanging out, the reality of other responsibilities started pressing forward and I left with unresolved emotions. I decided to deal with those emotions by writing a small check to support the River House Day Treatment Member Fund. I wrote the check and sent it off.
After completing their five volunteer hours, our students are required to write a short essay about their experience. Today, I’ve spent much of my day reading these essays. They are amazingly open and appreciative of the experience. Some samples:
“I am always humbled by the willingness of others to not only be open with me and to share with me their experiences but also by the ‘sameness’ of a lot of human experiences and suffering.”
“It felt good to share in the humanness of it all- bad days, favorite things, boyfriends, girlfriends, family, and trying to find meaning even when our stories are so different.”
“The clients were not only positive and loving toward the staff members, but also towards me as a volunteer. Every client I was able to talk to complimented something about me and they were constantly complimenting each other.”
“The clients I talked with accepted me in to their community and openly shared their experiences with me. This allowed me to see the world, in a small way, through their eyes.”
Every essay has emphasized the positive environment, the loving-kindness of staff and patients, and the surprise and joy of making deeply human connections. I also received an excellent formal thank-you note from the program director (for the small donation). In it she enclosed a short note from the clients or members of the Day Treatment Center. They wrote:
Thank you so much for the monetary gift. We appreciate it so much. Your students have blessed us with their presence and we have enjoyed them. I hope that we can give the students a fresh perspective on how a special place such as River House can do good and help its members. I hope you will always feel welcome here and thank you for all you do, mentoring the students and giving gifts to us.
This letter and the feelings I get when I read “Your students have blessed us with their presence . . .” was much bigger than what I gave. That’s the same message I keep getting from my students. They went with minimal expectations, a little angst, and to clock their required hours. But instead of just completing a simple assignment, they received an experience so meaningful that many of them have are extending their volunteer work far beyond the required five hours.
This is a fabulous example of how giving can give back much more than what was originally given. This is probably what Adler meant by Gemeinschaftsguful.
Thank-you to the River House staff and members for . . . BLESSING US with YOUR presence.