Monday, December 28, 2009

Vagaries of Volunteerism

Something happened in Hillsdale in the last 36 hours that has led me to think about a variation on Joseph Stalin’s chilling quote:

The death of one man is a tragedy.

The death of millions is a statistic.

What happened here is that an elderly couple with dwindling resources was in need of volunteer labor to do a very specific task. The word went out via the e-mail grapevine. The couple’s need was a compelling story. It also seemed to resonate with the holiday season.

The result was that many more would-be volunteers stepped up to help than were needed. A logistical crisis was in the making until someone with a grasp of what was needed said, “Whoa! Let a few of us take care of this.”

In short, the volunteerism threatened to overwhelm the problem and impose itself on the elderly victims.

That might be the end of the story, but as someone who watched this tale unfold (and volunteered to help) I’m trying to capture the excess energy before it vanishes.

Could all of us interested in helping the couple be enlisted to, say, prepare hundreds (including ourselves) for a natural disaster? Afterall, we’ve been warned of the devastation from an earthquake that is predicted to decimate our neighborhood before the middle of the century.

I fear it’s unlikely the desire to help the couple will transfer to the larger problem. It’s not just that the switch from the graphic story of two elderly neighbors to the epic of an entire neighborhood destroyed is like going from “tragedy” to “statistics.” We also go from an immediate, visible need to one that has no visible form — yet.

The question is still worth raising: Can we would-be volunteers envision what the aftermath of disaster might look like — and take it equally to heart? Can we then, with energy similar to that we were willing to direct to the couple, set about mitigating a disaster’s damage?

I wouldn’t count on it, but I’d love to be proven wrong for the same reason I'd love to have Stalin proven wrong.

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