From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Coming Full Circle

“Man, this is just more of the s-a-a-a-m-e old garbage!” The sneering wisecrack reverberated from the back of the classroom, putting an end to my preplanned opening remarks. I had been sufficiently warned about the skepticism of these students, but it still caught me by surprise.

While developing a new training seminar, the thought had occurred to me that the same techniques could be applied to job interviews. Since I had done volunteer work for the Salvation Army in the past, I dropped them a note. I offered to teach a few skills to the students enrolled in their adult in-patient substance-abuse program—skills that would help guide them through a successful job interview.

Shortly afterward, the major in charge of the program met with me. After I proposed my idea, he rubbed his chin in silence for a few moments, before responding. “Trust doesn’t come easily to these folks. But if your program will help, then let’s try it.” He smiled as we shook hands.

Addiction has no regard for social order or ethnicity—it preys on anyone. Sadly, many of those admitted to the Salvation Army rehab are therapy-wise from previous failed hospitalizations, and streetwise from years of feeding this insatiable predator. Given these circumstances, the Salvation Army has an excellent recovery program.

After chopping me off at the knees with his snide wisecrack, my detractor made no effort to conceal his contempt. Slouched low in his chair, he deliberately extended his long legs across the aisle. To further emphasize his defiance, he locked his arms firmly across his chest.

When my class of thirty students finally quieted down, I inquired in a casual tone, “Since you haven’t heard what I’m going to say . . . how can you make a comment like that?” The room grew still.

Suddenly, he sat bolt upright with such force that I took a step backward, even though I stood twenty feet away.

Scowling he snapped, “Cuz, it’s all the ‘same-old, same-old’!” He gestured angrily toward the windows, “Same thing out there. It’s about gettin’ over!” As he raised his voice, his eyes narrowed. “You come in here, wearing your designer suit, with the idea that you can teach us your fancy way of gettin’ over, so we can go out and get some kinda job? Well, it don’t work.” Angrily punching his chest with both fists, he said, “I know it don’t work, my man. I’ve done nineteen rehabs . . . yet, here I am!” Leaning forward, he asked, “What do you know about us? What are you gonna say that we ain’t already heard?” After his outburst, he retreated back to his slouched position. “Go ahead man, tell me!” he added, with a smirk.

Silently counting to ten, I forced a smile and said, “Excellent questions! And I will answer them . . . at the end of today’s class.”

As an experienced speaker, I understood that by conceding a battle I could sometimes win the war. Without pause, I moved directly into my presentation. During the following ninety minutes, few students showed interest.

Toward the end of our session, my unenthusiastic pupils began noisily shuffling papers. Taking the hint, I quickly summarized and gave them an assignment. “I promised to answer your questions.” Their fidgeting ceased as they instantly became attentive.

Pointing toward the window, I said, “When you were out there, you made promises you couldn’t keep. You lied and cheated . . . and you felt justified in doing it. That’s ‘getting over.’ And you lost.” As I slowly walked among the students, I continued, “If you think I’m here to teach you an easier way of ‘getting over’ . . . you lose again.” Their silent stares met mine.

“Many years ago, I heard a speaker describe how he felt when he lost his job, his house and eventually his wife. Within the next few months, both of his parents died.” The class still appeared unmoved.

With intentional sarcasm, I asked, “Did I mention that it was during the first nine months of his recovery . . . and that he stayed clean and sober through it all?” Their stiff features gradually softened as my revelation triggered whispers of awe and disbelief.

“That speaker finished by sharing the principles that helped him to deal with his problems, without relying on alcohol or drugs.”

Clearing my throat nervously, I continued, “After that presentation, I leaned to the guy next to me and said, ‘Y’know, pal, they pay speakers to come in here and make up this garbage . . . it’s all just a con.’” I studied them quietly, looking for a reaction.

“Just twenty-four hours earlier, I had crawled into that place with everything I owned stuffed into a brown paper bag. My life was a mess, and the speaker was offering me a way to change it for the better—for free. But I was afraid, so I hid behind arrogance.”

At this point, the Salvation Army drug counselor stepped quietly into the room. “Fortunately, a counselor exposed my arrogance for what it was. ‘George,’ he said, ‘you’re a pretty smart guy. But, if your way worked so well, what are you doing here?’” Finally, I seemed to be reaching them.

“By taking direction from people who had what I wanted, I learned how to trust.” I turned toward my antagonistic pupil, and said, “And that was seventeen years ago. Today, I have a lovely wife, a successful business and, most importantly, I have earned respect.” Extending my hand, I said, “So, my friend, thank you for expressing your fear.” His angry eyes mellowed. “I can tell you’re a pretty smart guy . . .”

Grinning sheepishly, he clasped my hand. “That’s all right, my man. Say your thing. I’ll listen.”

The subsequent classes were no less challenging but far more positive. Each week they showed up, anxious to report the results of their job interviews. At one point, my “friend” in the back of the room proudly announced, “I got a job. I used what you taught us, George, and already negotiated a one-dollar-an-hour raise.” As the students gave him a standing ovation, I think I applauded the loudest of all.

Many years ago, that volunteer speaker passed along a gift that he had also received from a volunteer—the gift of hope. Because that gentleman, whose name I never learned, willingly spoke to a room full of cynics, my journey through life began to take a more positive direction. I express my profound gratitude by passing the gift on through volunteer work. In doing so, I am reminded every day that my life has come full circle.

George M. Roth

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For information on The Salvation Army Headquarters, contact P.O. Box 269, Alexandria, VA 22302; 703-684-5500; fax: 703-684-3478;Web site:]

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners