Volunteering Is Its Own Reward: But Free Coffee Certainly Helps

Okay, okay. I know there’s a lot of great stuff happening in Birmingham, and I’m excited about that. But as much as Birminghamians are willing to get out and support new restaurants and local businesses, we’re not always as willing to volunteer to help where we’re needed. Most of us aren’t eager to step up and start something (or protest something or stand for something). In a lot of ways, we’re a city that likes to critique and give advice instead of getting our hands dirty and actually helping the people who are trying to make our city better.


I don’t have statistical proof for this. I do have a lot of anecdotal evidence in the form of conversations with people who are fighting hard for a better Birmingham and getting completely burned out because they’re not getting help — and not only are they not getting help, but they’re getting a constant stream of advice on how they should do better or do more. It’s demoralizing, and it’s why a lot of the people who try hard to change Birmingham at the grassroots end up moving to New Orleans or Charleston or Nashville or other cities where they can do good AND be supported.


Maybe this is a problem specific to Birmingham, and maybe it’s just the nature of volunteering. But it doesn’t really matter if we specifically suck at helping or everybody sucks at helping — we still need to get out and help more if we want our city to grow and change and be inclusive and be more economically healthy and really thrive.


I’m thinking about this subject right now because of the Girls Rock Birmingham going on at Saturn in Avondale. As of this morning, dozens of girls are spending the week being taught about music and performance and screenprinting and teamwork by Birmingham musicians who are dedicating massive amounts of time to help. (I’m teaching tomorrow’s songwriting workshop with Karina from Revelator — it’s probably no accident that the writers of the group are also the coffee-obsessed women of the group.)


The groundwork for Girls Rock is in place, but they still need help every day this week for gear switches (basically carrying instruments up some stairs). They’re bribing volunteers with Saturn’s Stumptown coffee, which is worth the commitment — and actually it’s not a commitment at all. If you want to help, just show up any day this week around 12:30 p.m. for the lunchtime gear switch, or around 4 p.m. for the afternoon setup. It’s a good chance to feel the maximum amount of good for the minimum amount of effort, you get to feel all warm-and-fuzzy next time you watch Jack Black in School of Rock, and you’ll get a free cup of some of the best coffee in town.


Helping doesn’t have to mean donating huge chunks of your time, working in a soup kitchen, or building houses (although that stuff is awesome). It can mean asking the people who are fighting for change what they need, and finding something in that task list that you could pretty easily fit into your life. (Lots of people need administrative and organizational help that can be done at home or even from your desk at work.) It can mean giving money or giving support or giving an hour once a month. It can even mean using social media to promote causes you believe in (like sharing a post from The Localist, haha).


Stepping into the world of volunteering can be a little daunting — it involves the need to set clear boundaries so our own responsibilities aren’t suffering, and it can be difficult to break into organizations in the first place (especially because volunteer-run organizations aren’t always run efficiently). That’s why it’s even more important to jump on opportunities like the Girls Rock gear switch when we find them — it’s pretty easy, it’s not a commitment, and it ends in coffee. And because it’s helping a group of young girls grow into strong, artistic women, it’s a great investment in a better Birmingham.


Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local and Reclaim the American Dream, creator of 30 Days of Local Praise and co-founder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen.

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