From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Volunteer 101

It was my last semester in college, and I was interested in some easy classes to breeze through. My roommate, Tom, overheard my dilemma as I tried unsuccessfully to line up “Basket weaving 101” or “The Films of Stephen King” on our state university’s Tele-Registration system.

“I got a gig as a teacher’s aide for my last semester,” Tom bragged, combing his perfect hair in our mirror. “It’s an afternoon class, twice a week. You can zip off to happy hour afterward.”

I nodded eagerly, hearing only the words “afternoon” and “happy hour,” watching as Tom took over my phone registration procedure and punched in the code for the class successfully. Smiling triumphantly, he hung up the phone. Happy hour, here I come!

Later that week, Tom offered to walk me to the first class.

“Why?” I asked. We weren’t exactly buddies.

“Oh, I dunno,” he mused, zipping his backpack. “Just seemed like the roommate thing to do.”

“Yeah, right,” I grumbled, following him across campus to the Health and Science building. “You just want to make sure I show up.”

Minutes later, oozing sweat after a cross-campus hike and six flights of stairs, I stared at an odd assembly of female protestor types and skinny men milling around our classroom. I finally wondered aloud, “Just what have I gotten myself into?”

Tom smiled. “Didn’t I tell you?” he asked. “Why, it’s Introduction to HIV.”

Naturally, this was not going to be an easy class. It wasn’t just the explicit nature of the nightly documentaries we were forced to endure: thin men covered in sores and women tearfully receiving the news that they’d just passed on their condition to their newborn babies. It wasn’t even the sensitivity exercises we engaged in frequently, role-playing as homosexuals or IV drug-users and then reversing roles to face our own prejudices head on.

For me the hardest part of Introduction to HIV was the volunteer requirement. As part of our grade, we were required to volunteer at one of the local HIV charities in our spare time.

Somehow, each week, I managed to skip out on my volunteer hours. Before I knew it, we were taking our final exam, and I was selling my four-thousand-page History of HIV textbook for beer and pizza money and getting measured for my cap and gown. Easy “A,” here I come!

Several days after the exam, my friends and I were anxiously planning our graduation party festivities. Kegs had been ordered, the forty-foot sub was being prepared and designated drivers were being, well, designated.

Then the phone rang. It was Tom. “You never satisfied your volunteer hours,” he grumbled, like something out of a bad nightmare. “I can’t possibly pass you. If I don’t have your volunteer form signed by tomorrow afternoon, you’ll fail the class.”

“Tom,” I stammered, “I’m planning my graduation party. It’s tomorrow. How can you fail me?”

“This is important,” said Tom as I dropped the forty-foot sub brochure to the ground. “If you don’t volunteer, the class will be wasted. I left the form on your bed. You can go tonight—the requirement is only five hours—and have your stupid party tomorrow after all.”

The sun was setting as I consulted an address in my class syllabus and pulled onto a sad side street on the wrong side of town later that night. Idling up the road in my battered Datsun, I saw a welcoming sign: HIV House. Underneath, an asterisk explained that HIV stood for Helping Individuals who are Very special!

I parked, gulped, approached a screened-in patio, and was greeted by a blind man in a bathrobe.

“May I help you,” he asked cheerfully.

“Y-y-yes,” I stammered. “I’m from the university, ummm, here to volunteer.”

The man smiled. “Ah, yes,” he nodded. “We’ve had quite a few of you here today.” I was thankful that he couldn’t see me blush.

With expert hands, the man led me to a battered couch in a living room straight out of 1972. I sat, and the man, who introduced himself as Ben, asked me what I thought I could contribute.

“Well,” I said, eyeing a candy dish full of condoms in the middle of a coffee table loaded with safe-sex pamphlets. “I’m a really good typist, and I can handle my way around a computer fairly well.”

“Splendid,” said Ben. “We’ve been looking for someone to update our volunteer files. If you’ll just follow me, I’ll show you to the office and you can get started. I’d say there’s at least five hours of work for you.”

I blushed again, realizing that Ben knew exactly how long I would stay, and worse, why. As he showed me a stack of three-by-five cards and an old Apple IIe computer, I realized that there were five days worth of work here, let alone five hours.

He sat in a cozy wicker rocking chair while I typed, seemingly lost in thought. While I found an old file marked “voluntears,” obviously written by yet another soon-to-be college grad in a hurry, I fixed the name and began to clean things up.

“Ben,” I said after an hour or so. “Is it just you here?”

“Not usually,” he explained. “But there’s a big rally in the state capital tomorrow, and all of my housemates are attending.”

Moments later, the phone rang. Ben answered it, his face growing concerned as he listened.

“Oh dear,” he said. “I see. Yes, yes, I understand. No, certainly. Please don’t apologize. And thanks again for calling.”

Ben sighed and rubbed his temples.

“Is something wrong?” I asked, looking up from my keyboard.

“No, no,” he said quietly. “It’s just that one of our dear friends has finally given up the struggle, and his partner has no one to help with the funeral.”

“I’m sorry,” I found myself saying, turning from the computer and facing Ben. “Is there something I can do?”

He seemed surprised by the question. “Oh no,” he said, somber yet not hysterical. “It’s a relief, after his suffering. It’s just that, well, the local churches usually help us out, but their offices are all closed now. And tomorrow . . . I’ve managed to fend quite well for myself since I lost my vision, but reading the yellow pages is still one feat I haven’t quite mastered yet!”

I regarded Ben as he frittered idly with a loose seam on his threadbare robe. I saw the promise of an empty house and an unpleasant and sobering task ahead of him the next day.

“I can call churches for you,” I blurted out, almost as if my heart wanted to beat my brain to the punch.

“You don’t understand,” he said, almost impatiently. “The church offices are closed tonight. I know your volunteer hours are important to you, but . . .”

“I heard you the first time,” I said forcefully. “You’ll have to call them tomorrow. That’s what I’m offering. To come tomorrow and help you call churches.”

Ben sighed, almost as if he didn’t want to deliver the bad news: “But that’s not all,” he confessed. “The churches always want someone to accompany them to the funeral home and handle the necessary details. I’ll need a ride there, and a ride back, and there are other details, too.”

“I understand,” I said, more slowly this time. “I have all the time in the world.”

Ben smiled, and pulled a pad from his robe pocket and began jotting notes for his big day tomorrow. I thought of my graduation party and hoped they would have fun. Perhaps, with one less person in attendance, there would be enough of that forty-foot sub to bring back to HIV House.

Rusty Fischer

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on HIV/AIDS, contact Project Inform, 205 13th Street, #2001, San Francisco, CA 94103; 415-558-8669; fax: 415-558-0684; Web site: www.projinf.org.]

Reprinted by permission of Christian Snyder.

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