Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The bad color.

There's a sign on the door that leads from the volunteer sort room of this place to the back offices.

It also happens to lead to the nearest restroom for volunteers.

There's a sign on the door. It says:
"Authorized personnel only. Volunteers must be accompanied by staff beyond this point."

The words are black on a bright red background.

As long as I have worked here, the sign has been on that door. And as long as I've worked here, we've NEVER accompanied ANYONE back there. I don't know who put it there, and I don't know what incident motivated its creation.

But I do know it works.

We tell volunteers as we're orienting them that they're welcome to go through that door and use the facilities as they need, but to be quiet because there's a call center just beyond the bathrooms. But even after the permission is clearly given, people are terrified to go through that door.

It fascinates me. At least once a day the following interaction will happen:

Volunteer: Excuse me, where did you say the restrooms are?

Me: (Pointing at the door) Through that door on the left hand side.

Volunteer: (Looks at red sign, then back at me) This door?

Me: (Pointing even more directly) Yep. Go on through. They're on the left.

Volunteer: (Looks down at the handle, then back up at the sign, then back at me. Then they'll notice the door right next to it that is clearly labeled "Supply closet". They approach THAT door.) This one here?

Me: (Standing up from my desk and pointing my finger within 3 inches of the correct door) No, THIS one.

Volunteer: Oh. Okay. (They hesitantly put their hand out to the door handle like they're afraid it's going to shock them. After they open the door a few inches a look of guilt crosses their face and they glance back at me. I give them a reassuring smile and nod encouragingly. They take a deep breath and push the door open.)

Okay, there might be slight exaggeration here. But not much. I can't tell you how many times I have to stop someone from peeing on our tapeguns in the supply closet. And, I can't tell you how many OTHER posted rules people blatantly ignore. Don't take food? Nah! They have plenty, they'll live without this item. Don't use the pallet jacks as skateboards? Meh! That's just for people without the balance to do it safely.

But none of those rules are posted in red.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Earlier this week a man came in with his son who appeared to be about 16 years old. The kid was wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt, and a winter hat pulled over his dark, emo-style haircut. He had some giant earphones around his neck, and he was looking at the ground.

The man said, "I'm Bob, and this is Aaron. We'd like to volunteer for awhile."

I talked to Bob about the volunteer options, and Aaron never once made eye contact with me. Everything about his body language looked defeated and told me he didn't want to be there. Bob told me that it was his hope that Aaron could come to volunteer a few times a week for a few hours each time. He gave no explanation as to why Aaron was not in school on a Tuesday at 11:30am, but I could deduce a few reasons.

I sent Bob and Aaron toward a project in the back, sighing inwardly about what a joy it was going to be to have Aaron come volunteer regularly. There's nothing worse than someone volunteering against their will.

Well, maybe a few things are worse. Like Polio.

By today I had completely forgotten about Aaron, until I was returning to the volunteer desk after running an errand and found him standing in front of the desk. At first he blended in with the other youth who were standing around waiting for their project to start, but I noticed his sullen posture and recognized him immediately. This time he was without his dad.

I told him to wait a moment while I got the other youth started on their project, and then came back to attend to him. He still wasn't making eye contact with me, but spoke: "I'm not with these guys, I'm just here by myself to volunteer."

"Yeah, I remember you. Aaron, right?"

At the mention of his name Aaron's eyes immediately met mine. He stood up a bit straighter as his arms unfolded and his countenance changed from being closed and distant to open and approachable. The corners of his mouth turned upward ever so slightly. That hint of a smile only lasted a brief moment, before his mouth opened.

And then I couldn't get it to shut.

"Yeah, I used to go by Z or Zed. And then there was this other time that I had another nickname, and I don't remember the name but it meant 'end of man'. My friends gave me that nickname because it's, like, totally contrary to my personality. That's why I had a nickname because I didn't like the name Aaron, because I thought it was too preppy. Don't you think Aaron is kind of a preppy name?"


"I mean, sometimes I dress preppy but it's because I think the clothes are comfortable, not because I'm a preppy. I'm like the opposite of a preppy, because my room is dirty all the time. There was this one time I had found this white gold ring somewhere and took it back to my house, and then lost it somewhere under all my stuff in my room. For awhile I thought my friend took it when he was over playing the Wii with me, and I was like, 'Dude, he has no right to take my ring, I found it fair and square.' But then later I was cleaning my room and I found it."

He paused for a breath, long enough for me to say, "Really, that's good. Well..."

"It's my folks that are making me come here. Well, not my real folks, my foster ones. My foster dad is making me choose between either staying with them or going back with my real folks. But I'm like, how am I supposed to make that decision? Both sets of parents drive me crazy. It's not like I really like having parents at all, you know? They're all worried about me and stuff, but I'm like, whatever, I can just do things on my own..."

It was at this point that I think my mind (as a subconscious defense mechanism) stopped actually listening and I started to search the perimeter of the room frantically looking for the project manager to come back, all while giving the occasional head nod and "uh huh" to try and still validate Aaron's talking in the meantime. He either was severely starved for a listening ear, or VERY bad at taking social cues, and I felt bad for him in either case. Thankfully Kelly (my trusty project manager and right-hand man in the volunteer room) came around the corner and headed to the volunteer desk. The closer he got to the desk the more he could hear what Aaron was talking about, and the more his eyes widened.

Just as Aaron was getting into some darker details of his biological family history I finally said, "I'm sorry to interrupt, but we have a project ready for you now. Just follow Kelly and he'll show you where to go. Talk to you later..."

Aaron didn't seem to be phased much by the abrupt end in our conversation, and happily went on his way to his project. Incidentally, he was taken to join a group that was comprised of youth from a residential treatment facility. Hopefully he found a more attentive ear than mine, maybe even one who could better commiserate with his woes.

The thing that I'll remember from the conversation (presentation?) is how validating it can be for someone to remember your name.