Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Day 79 - Volunteering at the American Cheese Society Conference

I have never volunteered at the American Cheese Society conference. To be honest, I didn't know this artisan cheese makers' conference existed until a few months ago. As it turns out, the ACS holds the conference in a different city each year, and for its 30th year the society chose to have the conference in Madison, Wisconsin. While I likely would have remained unaware of the conference under any other circumstances, research for my "I have never..." idea caused me to stumble upon information about the upcoming event and its need for volunteers. Considering volunteering at some place I have never volunteered remains an objective in my "I have never..." journey, I sprang at the one-time chance to volunteer at the ACS conference. With my volunteer shift scheduled for this morning, I biked down to the Monona Terrace and prepared for my third volunteer experience of my "I have never..." year.

After arriving at the Monona Terrace, I was surprised to see the limited indications the ACS conference would be taking place in a few short days. Although I knew I volunteered for one of the earliest shifts available during the week of the ACS conference, I anticipated more obvious signals of the organization's presence at the facility. Instead, the Monona Terrace was nearly void of any ACS effects. No signs for the event were displayed, no ACS staff walked the halls, and no displays indicated the conference was little more than a day away. The lack of any obvious ACs presence at first had me concerned I had arrived on the wrong day, which prompted me to seek the nearest resource in the buildings. Walking through the building, I rifled through my phone calendar and email in a effort to confirm my schedule until I happened upon a small information desk. Behind it, an elderly woman flipped through a newspaper to busy herself at the absence of any activity around her. Still uncertain about my planning, I approached the desk and promptly asked the woman where ACS conference volunteers were supposed to meet. Looking up from her paper, she motioned down the hallway and advised me to look for people in a nearby conference room. Relieved she seemed to know what I was talking about, I followed her directions and began walking down the long hall running along the front of the building.

The setup
I walked about half way through the Monona Terrace until I encountered a young woman busily sorting through some paperwork near a line of three tables positioned in the middle of an adjacent hallway. Tentatively, I approached the woman and asked if she was a part of the ACS, to which she replied she was. With my uncertainty waning, I introduced myself and provided the details of my volunteer shift. On cue, the woman darted into a nearby room and grabbed a large binder with "ACS 2013 Volunteers" printed on the spine.She quickly confirmed my information and gave me a volunteer t-shirt before explaining my volunteer shift would be spent preparing tote bags of information and swag that conference volunteers would receive when they arrived. While the idea of stuffing tote bags full of conference schedules and ACS trinkets for the extent of my three hour volunteer shift wasn't exactly what I was hoping for, I was happy to lend a hand in preparation for what was likely to be one of the largest ACS conferences in the history of the organization.

The swag
Following a brief explanation of the assembly of each tote bag, I set to work stuffing the bags one by one. At first, I was working alone as I walked along the table, filled a bag, place it in a box, and returned to the end of the table to begin again. I listened to the soft classical music playing in the overhead speakers as I worked, making sure to place one of each item on the table in the totes as directed by the ACS employee. This continued for some time until another volunteer appeared from a nearby room and offered her assistance in the process. Happy to have some company, I quickly walked her through the simple process of stuffing the bags before we continued working through the stack of tote bags at the end of the table. Several minutes later, two more volunteers appeared and offered to lend a hand, which quickened our pace and assuaged my fears of a long, boring volunteer shift at the ACS conference.

With the added help from the other volunteers the assembly of the ACS tote bags moved into high gear.  In nearly 30 minutes we had worked through several cases of notepads, water bottles, and tote bags, which left a massive stack of tote-filled boxes at one end of the table. Realizing we were running out of products and space quickly, I set to work preparing more cases of items for the tote bags and reorganizing the growing stack of boxes containing our completed projects. It was clear our group was finding a groove, which made the menial work more tolerable and gave us motivation to set targets for our productivity.

As time progressed, our airy and enthusiastic spirit persisted and the group started having a little fun with our volunteer work. We chatted about our personal lives and the factors that brought us to the volunteer opportunity as we continued packing boxes full of ACS totes. Even when we were informed some items intended for the totes were found in a storage room, the group promptly collaborated on a plan, briskly adapted our approach, and refrained from letting the hang up affect our positive mood. We all knew we were there for the right reason, and we were all committed to doing our best to help the ACS prepare for the forthcoming conference. In turn, we drove to get all of the totes filled before the end of our shift. Although we knew it was unlikely we would fill the thousands of bags stacked in boxes around us, we were going to give it our all to finish the task by the end of our shift.

Much to our surprise, the goal seemed achievable as we approached 11:00. With one hour left until the end of our shift, we had whittled the cases of tote bags down to five, and we showed little signs of slowing. In our rhythm, we continued systematically filling the totes as we closed in on the goal. Then, about 30 minutes before the end of the shift, we hit a snag. After nearly completing what had seemed to be an improbable task, we ran out of one of the essential needed for the tote bags and we couldn't locate another case of the item. In turn, our progress came to a screeching halt. We were at a dead stop, and there wasn't any indication that would change in the near future.

I'm an expert tote bagger
Unfortunately, I spent nearly all of my remaining volunteer shift waiting for an ACS employee to track down another case of the missing book. With work obligations occupying my afternoon, I knew there was no way I could stay and see our task through to the end. Instead, I stuck with the volunteer crew as long as I could and broke down my earlier approach to organizing the completed cases of totes. When another case of the missing item finally surfaced, I quickly set the items up for the crew before my ACS volunteer shift drew to a close. While we didn't meet our goal, I left the Monona Terrace knowing we made more headway on the tote project than the ACS staff thought we would. Even with the hiccups, the volunteer crew remained focused and committed, which made the experience a positive and surprisingly refreshing one. I know that my efforts helped the ACS prepare a critical element of every attendee's conference experience, and that's more than enough to make me feel good about donating my time.

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