7: Shared Challenges

7: Shared Challenges

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Shared Challenges

We should look to the mind, and not to the outward appearance.


As I entered the building two burly security guards framed the doorway. I had known this library was on the wrong side of town, but security guards in a library? My heart sank a little more than usual. Since losing my job I had become accustomed to that sinking feeling. Applications ignored, interviews that didn’t go well… fighting the weariness, I pulled myself together.

“Remember why you are doing this,” I whispered to myself.

Volunteering had been the idea of the overworked employee at the job centre. “You’ve got some great skills but perhaps it’s time to consider retraining. It’s an ideal opportunity to try something new.” She’d pushed the list towards me. I scanned the opportunities: charity shop assistant or dog walker.

“I love dogs,” I’d said.

“But would you want to work with them, all day, every day?” I had to admit I was no fan of cold weather. I moved my pen further down the list, then stopped at the line that said, “Teaching computer skills in a library.”

“Your IT skills are good, perhaps a route into teaching?” I knew she had spent more time with me than she could really afford so I nodded. Why not?

As I entered the main library I looked around. A large portion of the building was devoted to rows of computer stations. People sat at every one of these stations, absorbed and quiet. It felt like a college exam hall.

I was interrupted from my thoughts by a round, eager face. A friendly hand was thrust towards me.

“Hi, I’m Stephen. I look after this project. Glad you could make it.”

Pretty soon I was put to work; no lengthy inductions here. There were too many learners and not enough teachers. Stephen led me down the rows of computers until we reached Jenna. My first view of Jenna was of her back as she hunched over the computer, shoulders rounded stiffly.

“Jenna’s part of the job club — been trying to get a job for a while. She’ll succeed because she keeps trying.” Stephen introduced us. It turned out that Jenna was trying to get a job cleaning hotels. Her last job had ended seven months earlier when the owners went bankrupt.

Jenna was fighting back tears of frustration while trying to attach her CV to an e-mail. As we worked through the steps necessary to do this, her face brightened and her shoulders relaxed a little. When we had finally sent out three applications she sat back.

“I just hope this works. The things a six-year-old needs…” Her voice trailed off.

Before we could spend time chatting, Stephen noticed my work was done, bounded over to me, and ushered me to the next client.

Ray was an elderly gentleman whose son lived far away and had sent him an e-mail with an attached video of his grandchildren. Ray did not know how to open the attachment and watch the video. A few quick clicks of the mouse and Ray was happily playing and replaying. I asked if he wanted me to show him how to do it for himself but he didn’t.

“Oh, don’t worry about Ray,” one of the other volunteers said. “He comes every week with the same problem. I think he likes the company as much as anything.” I looked at Ray as he clicked again on the mouse. He gave me a quick wave, then returned to the screen. I thought about my family close by. I had been thinking of moving away to find work, but surely it wouldn’t have to come to that?

I was a little afraid as I approached Allan. He had a shaved head, dark sunglasses, and a tattoo of a python snaking down his neck and disappearing under his shirt. His huge bulk covered the small chair. I pulled up a seat and sat next to him.

“Hi, I’m Penny. Can I help?” I felt nervous. Did it come across in my voice? Out of the corner of my eye I could see the security guard was watching.

“I want to write a letter.” His voice was gruff. I started to show him how to work the computer. As I clicked he watched the characters appear on the screen. I passed the keyboard to him. His large hands started to move over it but then stopped.

“Who is the letter to?” I asked.

“My wife. I’ve been out of prison now twelve months. I want to tell her I’ve been straight and clean.”

His large fingers once again moved around the keyboard, then started to clench into fists. I showed him what to do again. He looked down. “I can’t write.”

I mentally kicked myself. How could I have been so stupid? It was obvious now that he had said it. I took the keyboard from him. As Allan relayed his story I typed. Between us we managed to put the words together to show how he had changed, how he had stayed out of trouble, and to ask his wife if she would see him. As the empty page filled with letters Allan discarded the dark glasses. His hard shell gave way to vulnerability and animation as he told me his story.

When I left the library that day a weight had lifted from me. It was late afternoon and the air was beginning to turn cold as I made my way home through the rough side of town. My footsteps, though, were light. I had a new sense of purpose and a different way of thinking.

Later that evening I curled up in a chair next to the fire and reviewed the day. As I took a sip of my soup I thought about Jenna struggling to feed her child. I thought about Ray captivated by a video of his far-away grandchildren. I thought about Allan desperately trying to find his way back to the life he had once had. But what I thought about most was how alike we all were — just people joined together in taking those first steps to make a difference to our lives.

I had entered the library as a teacher, hoping to share some of my skills with others. That day, through volunteering, I was the most fortunate student of all. I had emerged with the knowledge that to struggle alone through life’s challenges is a lonely process, but to make that journey with others can make facing even the hardest challenges rewarding.

~Penny Black

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