You may know this already, but ASP Summer Staff is a hard job. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had. So much of what staffers do goes unseen by our volunteers, but this unseen work is wildly important to the families we serve and the volunteers we empower. A lot of the legwork happens just before volunteers come to our centers, making all the work we do possible.
Prior to volunteers arriving Sunday of Week 1 to a flawless center, immaculately prepared projects, and smiling faces with duct tapes for name tags , a summer staff has spent 10 days getting to know each other, going on scores of Initial Home Visits, prepping the center, and planning Evening Gatherings. It’s a hectic week of set up, but somehow it works! The staff rustle up long-forgotten deeds of homes, scour DMVs for trailer Titles, and frantically locate a notary to sign Lease Amendments between families and landlords. They compile material lists, write work orders, scrub the center clean, meet cooks, fend off dumpster cats, buy Lowe’s out of treated 2x6s and much, much more in order to be ready for the arrival of their first groups. While volunteers might not know it, the staff may have just cleaned themselves up after dropping off all the material for a porch mere minutes before they arrived.
After pulling on their polos and sturdy shorts, the staff head outside to greet their first group of volunteers, all the while blaring Disney music on their Block Rocker. If the volunteers communicated their arrival time well and the staff were ready for them, this process is flawless. Big vans pull into parking lots. High fives all around! Everyone is learning everyone’s name, and all bond over the awkwardness that is blowing up an air mattress in a humid gymnasium. This is the time when the staff learns what they didn’t think about (unless they are a staff of psychics). Questions like, “Is the water from the faucet okay to use in a goldfish tank?” and “Does the Baptist church in town have a Wednesday night men’s Bible Study?” are answered with many a, “Let me get back to you on that” or a, “I’m not sure, but I could give you turn by turn directions to the nearest Walmart!”
The week of preparation can only do so much. A staff learns vital lessons that first day of volunteers, like the importance of keeping an eye on the number of females versus males in the pre-trip communication forms. When I was on staff in Nicholas County, we kept having to move our dividers in the gym back and forth to make room for everyone! After everyone arrives, group leader meeting happens, and then that very first Evening Gathering. “Wagon Wheel” and “That Where I Am There You May Also Be” echo around gyms and auditoriums across Appalachia. That new guitarist on the staff learns that they didn’t know E-Minor as well as they thought they did, leading to some clunky sing-a-longs. But they power through with optimism, and then they all eat Chicken Parm.
After eating, it’s time for Sunday night home visits, where a staffer, a group leader, and a youth visit the home where the volunteers will be working that week. These visits were always a part of the week that I waited for with a anticipation and just the hint of dread. My major worry was that the volunteers would see the project and feel incapable of continuing the work, or that they would find something terribly wrong with what had already been done, negating weeks of labor. And while this will happen on occasion, most Sunday night family visits go well. Group Leaders let the staff know any tools or materials they want that the staff didn’t think of, and the youth hesitantly talks to the family, learning about the scope of the project as well starting that relationship.
I remember my very first Sunday night home visit as a staffer well. Usually, I had more than one Group leader and youth pair, but we only had four work crews our first week of volunteers in Hancock County in 2015. I was heading to Dianna’s house in a minivan (you can read about her in last week’s post!), cruising north towards Sneedville on Highway 31, determined not to get us lost. The group leader was driving, so I was paying special attention to all the landmarks. Over the bridge, don’t turn left at the BP (best burgers in Sneedville), and through town. Turn at the library, and there we are. Those were the thoughts racing through my head as I learned about life in Batavia, IL from the youth volunteer. About halfway down Highway 31, we all noticed a beautiful baby fawn crossing the road. The mother deer was nowhere in sight, but what quickly came into view was a huge raised pick up truck, hurtling around a bend in the road. Oh no. My very first home visit, and this happens? I had just been rattling off facts about the county and its natural beauty, its zinc mine, its waterfalls…only for a baby deer to get hit by a big ol’ truck? The sweet youth on board acted cool, but I could see she was a little rattled. As was I. A shared, traumatic experience is always a great way to bond, but I didn’t anticipate this to happen so quickly! We shook it off and continued on to the home, where Dianna, a sweet little lady whose floors had started to cave in, welcomed us with warmth and some sarcasm. She took to the group quickly, asking about who else would be there the following day. After walking the group through the project and visiting with Dianna, we headed back to the center.
The first week of volunteers is definitely a learning process for the staff, but with a little bit of mercy and grace, it is an amazing and memorable week. Even if it is rough around the edges, it’s okay. It’s the first week on the job, a job that requires so much knowledge, flexibility, and empathy. Just because you see a baby deer get hit by a huge truck doesn’t mean the rest of the week will be as brutal. Our Week 1 volunteers are often some of our most experienced, most flexible groups, and we so appreciate their willingness to be helpful, kind, and understanding. The mercies offered by Week 1 crews are some of my most cherished ASP memories. Laundry done by the kindest floating volunteers, a big basket of vegetables, bubble guns, practical jokes (I’m looking at you, beaning boys of St. Anselm’s), Week 1 groups bring much needed positivity and joy to families and staff alike.
To all of you volunteering this week, thank you! If you’re volunteering later in the summer, we are also so thankful for you. If you’re not volunteering this summer..why not? Learn more about how to volunteer with ASP here!
Matt Headland is ASP’s newest member of the Volunteer Department. Throughout the year he focuses on new volunteer recruitment, retention, and media. This summer, however, you will find him driving throughout Central Appalachia with our Media Content Team. Follow along with his travels with his weekly blog, “Feels Like Home,” and on social media at @AppServProject.