Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Day 156 - Volunteering at Koats for Kids

I have never volunteered at Koats for Kids. As an annual event that focuses on helping impoverished families get warm clothes for the often brutal winter months in Wisconsin, I added Koats for Kids as a potential volunteer opportunity early in my “I have never...” year.  Although it snuck up on me, the signs of autumn that became more frequent as last month passed made me realize the Koats for Kids season was likely upon us. As a result, I started doing some research into the organization and their 2013 plans in an effort to pin down the prospects of donating my time to the organization as a part of my ongoing “I have never...” sub-challenge to volunteer at one new location each month. As luck would have it, during my research I became aware my office building was putting together a few teams of people to help out in four hour shifts Koats for Kids this year. In response, I happily threw my name into the mix, which resulted in me being scheduled to accompany some of my co-workers for a volunteer shift at Koats for Kids this evening.

Another great organization
The timing of the volunteer opportunity proved perfect following my return from Maine. After a long day of travel yesterday, spending half of my workday helping out those in need was the best way to ease back into the routine I could imagine. From the moment we arrived at the Koats for Kids center at the local Community Action Coalition to the time I left around 7:30 tonight, the entire experience was rewarding. At first, our group spent some time preparing for the late afternoon opening of the center. The bulk of our first hour was spent cleaning up racks of coats and placing out hats and mittens that would all be available for free to those in need. Although it wasn’t the most exciting part of the experience, I knew our efforts preparing the center would make it easier and convenient for the people that would eventually shop the selection of used coats. As a result, I worked diligently until the Koats for Kids center opened, which brought on the most involved and most rewarding part of today’s experience.

Trucks... full of coats!
Minutes after the Koats for Kids center opened its doors men, women, and families began streaming in the doors. Before long the aisles of coats and other winter wear were lined with people in search of something warm for the coming winter months. It was hard to ignore the warmth and genuine gratitude in their eyes and voices as each of them moved about the store trying on coats and picking out scarves, mittens, and hats.

At first, I took a little time to gather my bearings among the small crowd of people, but that soon gave way to a pointed effort to offer my assistance to anyone and everyone shopping the store. Walking around the store, I asked shoppers if they were looking for something in particular and tracked down items I thought fit the bill for their individual preferences. This created some surprised looks from many of the shoppers initially, but when they realized my offer of assistance was sincere every one of them accepted my help with a smile on their face. I quickly began to recognize my simple gesture meant a lot to the people I encountered in the Koats for Kids center, which lifted my heart and gave me motivation to make the most of my remaining volunteer shift. Needless to say I was enjoying the experience completely, and I was having a lot of fun interacting with the Koats for Kids shoppers.

The setup
 With half of our volunteer shift remaining, our volunteer group found ourselves with a packed shopping area as more individuals and families came to the Community Action Coalition seeking winter gear. Eventually the growing crowd of people began to make space and shopping resources scarce, which left the center with no shopping carts. As requests for carts began coming in with greater frequency, I realized our group needed to put a secondary plan into action for those needing assistance carrying the bulk of clothing they were gathering during their shopping trip. In response, I began walking the center looking for those shoppers struggling to carry stacks of clothing and offering my assistance as a shopping assistant (or human cart, if you prefer) during their visit. Each time I offered a shopper in the center was more than happy to drape their potential selections over my arms and shoulders as they continued around the center. With my arms extended, I happily followed them around the store as they continued, offering my hands and wrists as racks upon which to hang their coats and other winter gear.

"The human cart" in action!
For some groups my assistance resulted in the relatively simple task of carrying a few coats as they made a final decision over a period of a few minutes, but for others, mainly larger families, I found myself carrying a dozen or more coats as they shopped the store for 15 minutes or more. Regardless, I was happy to assist either way, and the fact I was getting a little isometric workout from the experience wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Additionally, the responses I received for offering such assistance to the shoppers were overwhelming. Their actions made it apparent many in the group of shoppers weren’t used to receiving offers for such assistance, and they uniformly made it known they were grateful for the experience.

 This pattern continued until the crowd began to wane and resources became more available for those newcomers to the center. Refocusing my efforts on keeping the Koats for Kids center tidy, I rejoined the other members of volunteer group and worked through a series of simple tasks reorganizing various parts of the floor and supply rooms. By the time we rounded out this effort the center was in the process of closing and our volunteer shift was drawing to a close. That fact caught me by surprise as I came to realize I had lost track of time in the midst of all the activity and interactions with the Koats for Kids shoppers. As I looked at the clock to confirm the time, I realized my time at Koats for Kids had been one of the most rewarding and most entertaining of my volunteer experiences to date. It was just plain fun to be able to help and interact with the shoppers at Koats for Kids, who consistently exuded joy and happiness in the face of their challenging economic circumstances. Needless to say, today’s experience was warming and rewarding. I’m happy I had the chance to volunteer at Koats for Kids.

The volunteer crew

With another of my “I have never...” volunteer events under my belt, I can say I’m looking forward to the volunteer opportunity that November will bring. If it makes me feel anything like I do after tonight’s experience, I know it will be enough to carry me through the early phases of the coming winter. It just feels good to lend a hand, and that’s probably one of the greatest lessons I’m taking away from this “I have never...” idea. In my effort to be a better person I’m learning the best people grow and learn from giving and caring, and that carries a lot of weight from my perspective. The feeling that surfaced from today’s “I have never...” experience is a powerful one. So much so that I just may need to consider expanding my once a month volunteer goal to something greater... I guess we’ll see what the next few months bring.

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