What is the toughest community volunteer work?
March 9, 2010 8:18 AM   Subscribe

What in your opinion is the most difficult, impressive, or character-demonstrating community volunteer work?

I have to write a feature for my college newspaper. We do features on volunteer work pretty often, but their impact seems to be decreasing. They don't elicit much interest, which is bad because part of the point of doing these features is to draw attention to what needs to be done, and what can be done.

The students at this school seem to be people who respond strongly to a challenge. I want to show them something that snaps them out of their complacency. I want to inspire them by showing them people their age or a few years out of college taking on tough, real challenges. Doing things that are physically, mentally, or emotionally difficult and making a real difference.

I also want the volunteers who are doing truly impressive things to receive the recognition they deserve.

So far, the jobs I have come up with are:

Emergency Medical Technicians
Foster Parents
Hospice Volunteers

Any other ideas? The one condition is, it has to be something that can be done in almost any major city. So, things where you have to travel like becoming a US Marine would be out. In addition to difficulty, I am also interested in work that shows extreme strength of character.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Hotline volunteers often have intensive training (60+ hours) and then a work commitment. Suicide hotlines are especially difficult because of the nature of the calls, but rape/domestic violence or HIV hotlines are not much better.

Good luck.
posted by Sophie1 at 8:31 AM on March 9, 2010

This may feel like an answer-non-answer, but the community service work I've always been most impressed by is distinguished not by its intensity but its duration. A semester of literacy counselling is great. Being a mentor for a child from the ages of six through eighteen is huge. A church that runs a food drive is dozens of times less important than a church that opens a food pantry.

I'd also point out that all EMTs and most foster parents are paid employees (although foster parents are often paid so little that they may as well be volunteers) -- and I would look into the counseling of abused children as another very difficult front-line job occasionally staffed by volunteers.
posted by Valet at 8:33 AM on March 9, 2010

Hm, just about anything anybody does at that age is challenging. Some of the very people you find sitting around all day, playing video games, are on the verge of mental health discoveries that would have made even Baden-Powell pack it up and head back to the estate.

So I guess I would say that looking for lines of work that demonstrate extreme strength of character probably isn't enough.

I think the responsibility comes back to the journalist in this case. You have the power to make firemen look wimpy and puppy-preeners look like powerful role models.

In any case, every career or line of work has those aspects. It's your job to find it and bring it out for people to see.

I can totally see a series on volunteer work not eliciting much interest. They tend to show people spending time doing mildly happy things and receiving no reward for it. And good heavens, the photography alone usually seals the coffin. Girl petting dog, etc.

You're gonna have to dig and make people cry and right then, pull out a camera and SNAP and maybe that will help get you closer to what you want -- more readers.
posted by circular at 8:37 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I find working with the elderly and persons with mentally disabilities the most challenging, impressive work one can do. I have shrunk from this challenge in the past, and respect people who can stick it out.

Pictures might make your article stronger. River clean ups usually have good photo ops.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 8:39 AM on March 9, 2010

I'd also point out that all EMTs ... are paid employees

Not true in small communities (mostly rural) with volunteer squads.
posted by jgirl at 8:45 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know about specific activities, but I think I would be more moved to read about an activity generally and then in the same piece hear about a specific person and why they find it meaningful or useful, or hear about the impact it has had on a community or a recipient.
posted by KAS at 8:49 AM on March 9, 2010

I think working with people with mental health issues must rank up there.

I've considered volunteering the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, then always shrank away when I considered the possible responsibilities put on me.

Here is a list of their programs...I imagine the Inpatient Program and Telephone Support Line must be particularly tough.

Maybe you could contact an institution like this and ask them to put you in touch with a volunteer or volunteer coordinator. I'm sure they could give you some stories.

btw, why is this post anon? It seems like better help could be offered if we knew where you were posting from.
posted by hiteleven at 8:49 AM on March 9, 2010

I've always particularly admired people who volunteer to teach or counsel in prisons. By definition you're working with people who are very hard to reach, and you can have a huge (indirect) impact on society just by changing the kind of person they'll be when they get out.
posted by pete_22 at 9:12 AM on March 9, 2010

Working with dementia patients is probably very difficult.

Possibly more difficult would be suicide hotlines.
posted by anniecat at 9:30 AM on March 9, 2010

Wait, I take it back. Foster parenting must be the hardest.
posted by anniecat at 9:31 AM on March 9, 2010

I find working with the elderly and persons with mentally disabilities the most challenging, impressive work one can do.

Seconded. I know from my own experience that working with especially children or the elderly with mental disabilities can be extremely taxing.

And staffing Women's Shelters. You're counselor and guard. It's scary and tough.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:08 AM on March 9, 2010

Volunteering with refugees can be pretty challenging. You work with people coming to the U.S. with pretty much nothing and who have seen some pretty terrible things. This could be a starting point for research.
posted by ihavepromisestokeep at 10:45 AM on March 9, 2010

Being an abortion escort isn't easy.
posted by box at 12:08 PM on March 9, 2010

Not in your country, but most of Australia's rural fire service is made up of volunteers. The nature of their work means they face extreme weather conditions, life threatening situations, and emotionally challenging outcomes. The NSW Rural Fire Service is the world's largest fire service with over 70,000 volunteers. They donate many days a year to training, are on-call 24/7, and frequently travel interstate or overseas to assist other fire services. It was volunteers who were the incredible heroes in the Victorian fire catastrophe last year.
posted by Kerasia at 1:58 PM on March 9, 2010

I've been a clinic escort, a sexual assault hotline counselor, and a needle exchange volunteer. They were difficult in their own ways, but I'd nominate clinic escort and hotline counselor as the really hard ones.

The clinic escorting itself, not so very hard if you don't mind being yelled at and the occasional minor scuffle - but the knowing that every time you put on that shirt and stand outside that building you are a target for crazies who would not think twice about killing you, is a wee bit of mental strain. And on a more day-to-day level, it was pretty emotionally difficult to realize that I was being followed home by some of the protestors to learn where I lived, where I worked, and then they would very intentionally drop personal information about me into our little sidewalk altercations so I'd know for sure they could get at me pretty much any old time they wanted.

I still loved that gig and would go back to it in a heartbeat if the local clinic where I live now needed me. But hotline counseling is seriously draining, hard, mentally and emotionally exhausting work - I had to quit that to keep myself sane, and I have deepest, utmost respect for anyone who can hack that position. On similar lines, maybe the advocates who go with the hotline callers to the hospital, court, etc. - I didn't do that but I think in many ways that would be even harder and make at least as much difference.
posted by Stacey at 2:49 PM on March 9, 2010

Being a court advocate sounds like it would be a really intense, difficult experience.
posted by SisterHavana at 7:35 PM on March 9, 2010

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