YourWords STL

On Being a Volunteer – Small Kindnesses that Get Big Smiles

Guest Blog Post from Tutor Coordinator and Workshop Leader, Patsy Zettler


All anyone in this world wants is a little love and attention. A little one-on-one. A touch on the shoulder. Some eye-contact. A smile. As volunteers who work with children, though we may be leading an activity, helping with a homework assignment, or discussing instructions, all we really need to do is give each child a good dose of human interaction, an open mind, a mindful ear. But it’s got to be real. It’s got to be sincere, straight from the heart. Otherwise, the jig is up.

I know about the need for kindness all too well. I grew up with a narcissistic mother. She sucked the life out of the room. She demanded everyone’s attention. At all times. She got 100 percent of my young step-dad’s devotion. But, we children were not to interrupt her. If she was primping—and she was always primping—you had to be quiet and admire her from afar. If you got too near, you’d get a slap or a shove. If, somehow, you got on her nerves, you were sent to bed—not on top of the bed, but under it. You had to scoot on your belly to get under the bed and lie eye-to-eye with the dead dust bunnies. And you were careful to not make one peep, pinching your nose to stifle your sneezes. Falling asleep was the only way to escape the discomfort. You’d be forgotten for hours, but that was better than the alternative.

Growing up with this kind of mother, I learned first-hand how much children crave adult love and attention. Luckily, in the Catholic schools I went to I received the attention I needed. While my home life was horribly painful and lonely, devoid of kindness, my time with attentive adults was cherished and nourishing. I grew strong and confident with their support. Eventually, my mother ran away, but well into my 30s there were always other female adults who were great role models, wonderful women who showed me how to love and raise children.

This is why I volunteer. I want to give back what has been given to me. I want to connect with that one lonely child who needs a caring adult to trust. I want to be there to give that small act of kindness that means so much to a love-starved child.

At YWSTL, we are given many opportunities to give back. Not in a passive, restrictive way, but we actively participate in writing programs that help the children express their feelings. In our partnership with Lift For Life Gym, we ran an after-school program for young girls that guided them in writing and illustrating their own personal narratives, true stories about their own experiences to share with others.

Each session was invigorating. The girls stayed active writing, drawing and decorating their folders in which they kept their stories and pictures. Mostly, they chatted and giggled with each other, offering up advice for what to write, laughing at what was drawn.

Respect and kindness were our governing rules. Building each girl’s confidence was the goal.

“I can’t write,” they said. But they did. “I can’t draw,” they said. But they did. “I’ve never read out loud. I’m too shy,” they said. Yet, they all did.

Their stories were touching (and telling). While one wrote about getting her arm broken after being shoved at a birthday party, another wrote about a crazy morning on the city school bus; one wrote about killer clowns and another wrote about being betrayed by a best friend. There was a story about a first homecoming dance and being admired for looking so good; and from our oldest girl was a story about how it felt to receive a much-desired acceptance letter that offered her the chance to attend a prominent university.

On our last day, the day they were to share their stories, one small girl, the youngest in the group, sat alone on a bench before our session started. The other kids were laughing and playing in the gym, but she sat there, curled up, separated from the others. Her dark blue hoodie was pulled up, covering most of her face. Her head was down.

“What’s wrong, Shalonda?” I asked. She gave no response.

I got closer and looked for her eyes. “Are you in trouble?” I asked. She nodded. Her head still down.

“I want to be with ya’ll.” she mumbled. “Can I go in the room with ya’ll?”

“Of course,” I said, speaking softly as you do to a small, wounded creature. “We want you to be with us. You can help us set up.”

Her head lifted. Her face lit up. Her widened, tear-filled eyes met mine. Then, she smiled, and what a beautiful smile it was, so big it burst my heart.

Patsy Zettler is an educator, writer, and volunteer for YourWords STL.


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