Saturday, July 17, 2010

Community volunteering, Cheyenne style

Why do people volunteer?

There isn’t much glory in picking up trash along the city’s greenway. Sure, your organization gets a sign: “This section of the Greenway sponsored by the Old Timey Choo-Choo Train Collectors Club” – something like that. People see it every day as they walk or skate or bike by. But is that all there is?

People like to help. They like to hang around with like-minded people. As you pluck candy bar rappers from a patch of nettles, you are with other people who like what you do. And you’re performing a public service.

You get bragging rights, too.

“Have you ever been on the quarter-mile stretch of Greenway between Chattanooga Road and Rock Island Lane? Ever notice how the nettles are free of Snickers wrappers? Our club did that. All aboard!”

Scientists tell us that humans may be hard-wired for empathy and philanthropy and community service. We may even come equipped with an “empathy gene.” We could all be do-gooders at heart. This may come as a shock to Ayn Rand fans, who believe that greed and self-preservation are the only hard-wired human virtues. It may shock others who love to point out that only humans and our chimp cousins kill their own kind for the thrill of killing. That kind of attitude gets us off the hook in so many ways.

But if we are hard-wired for empathy and social interaction, it doesn’t let us off the hook in so many ways.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because Chris and I are volunteer coordinators for Cheyenne’s Old-Fashioned Summer Melodrama, now in its 54th year. It’s a production of the Cheyenne Little Theatre Players, now 80 years old and counting. As with all community theatres, the CLTP depends on volunteers. The melodrama is an all-volunteer show – directors, cast, backstage crew, olio acts, bartenders, ushers, and all the rest. It takes a lot of volunteers to run 28 shows, especially when this one is the organization’s largest annual fund-raiser. And the most fun.

Most people I know aren’t anxious to staff the old-fashioned (and very hot) popcorn maker in our historic (non-air-conditioned theatre) just for the joy of sweating. Jeanne knows the popcorn maker frontward and backward and is one of the few people who can get it to behave. She takes a joy in that, and in teaching the rest of us rookies. She divvies up the extra popcorn, and takes some home for her family. Small physical reward for five hours of hard work.

I was house manager for last night’s show. My job is to look important and handle the money. During one of my frequent breaks, I looked around the lobby and could see the following: behind the bar was a tee totaling Mormon and former Miss Wyoming contestant, a writer who sometimes takes care of her twin boy grandkids and a retired sheriff. Jeanne was disciplining the popcorn machine, ably assisted by 16-year-old Erica, whose grandma (a former school librarian) was backstage helping her granddaughter get dressed for a performance. Selling raffle tickets were mother and daughter, both long-time volunteers. My wife Chris was taking care of the box office and Joyce was sitting at the “will call” table – she was in melodrama performances back in the 1960s. She contends that she’s too old for acting but still loves to help out.

Waiting on tables were an Air Force NCO and his wife, who also supervises the theatre’s craft shop. There was Lew, an 82-year-old Air Force veteran and American Legion volunteer and Mark, a twenty-something guy who also volunteers backstage. Barb, too, who auditioned for the melodrama but didn’t get a call-back. So I called her up for duty in the lobby.

On stage were college kids, high school kids, state government employees, teachers, entrepreneurs, realtors and even one person who is looking for work and still found the time and energy to volunteer.

Signed up for volunteering later is the county clerk, several attorneys, government types, retirees, day-care providers, police officers, homemakers, men and women from Warren AFB, college kids, and several people running for public office.

None of these people are being paid, although waitrons get to keep their tips.

So they get something else out of it. Some of the young people are looking for experience that can lead them into careers in theatre or film. One of the card girls this year is back from college for the summer and working as the tech person for the local TV station’s morning show. The honoree at this year’s Cheyenne Film Festival was a former melodrama volunteer, Daniel Junge, who has gone on to make documentaries nominated for Academy Awards. My son Kevin runs the sound and lights for his community college theatre program. He was waiting tables at the melodrama last year.

Others who spent part of their childhood at the theatre are now volunteering with their kids. Some are in show biz, but most are teachers, bureaucrats, serving in the military, working at carwashes, ranching, or maybe just ne’er-do-wells. Never know how people are going to turn out.

I’m an arts bureaucrat and writer. My wife runs the arts programs at the local YMCA.

Volunteering makes us feel good. We also know it’s part of being an active member of the community. It’s part of valuing our community, even creating community where it didn't exist before.

Where did we pick up such crazy ideas? Our families, for one, and growing up Catholic. We were also influenced by hippe values, which were a strange amalgam of "love thy neighbor" and "me-me-me!" All of us Baby Boomers seem to still be struggling with this issue.
Community is what it’s all about. You may not have a single empathy gene in your body. But almost everyone agrees that there is such a thing as “community values.”

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