Changed Life Story: 'I Thought Volunteering Was Just Showing Up. But Here's What I Know Now.'

Volunteer story

Note: Many of our volunteers have been dedicated to the same affiliate partners for years and one of them recently shared how her relationships have grown with those she serves. Lindsey shared her story first at our Neighborhood Advocate Cohort (NAC) program, a series dedicated to helping its students engage with their communities and neighborhoods better, and then again at our Volunteer Team Leaders Gathering.


I have been involved with The Open Door for four years. I teach an adult ESL class one night a week. I am one of the few volunteer teachers who is actually an ESL teacher by profession, so I also help them lead trainings for new volunteers. I mention this to highlight that before the Neighborhood Advocate Cohort program, my general feeling was, “I’m kind of rocking this volunteer life!” Thankfully, this foolishness was shattered.

In one of our first discussions at NAC and through some of our readings, we talked about how advocacy at its core is relational. I immediately felt convicted, “Do I really know any of my students?” I did what anyone would do in that moment: I ignored that feeling and started justifying—there is a large student turnover, it’s too short of a timeframe, am I supposed to meet students outside of class?! I mostly silenced my conviction, but it wouldn’t go away. I felt proud of my “dedication," but I soon realized no one talks about how Mother Teresa was such a dedicated Tuesday night volunteer. Real change, real movement comes through relationships.

I tried a new approach. Instead of trying to silence my conviction, I shared it with the other volunteer teachers about it. How is it that after four years, I'm still not close with any students? Thankfully, the other teachers had lots of ideas of how we could improve: What about a night with no lesson, no books, no teaching? What if we just sat down and talked to our students? It was so obvious! So we launched our first conversation night. This didn’t radically change all my relationships with my students in an hour, but my mindset shifted. I used to think volunteering was about showing up and providing a service, but now I know it’s really about seeing others—and being seen—by them. It’s mostly about building friendships.