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The Privilege of Volunteering

We put on a marathon last week!  At least, we helped put one on; there were actually close to 1000 volunteers involved in the planning and execution of what was our city’s inaugural marathon.  Of those thousand, nearly 900 were placed in their volunteer roles by Althea who, as a recent initiate into the running world, had her interest in giving back to the running community piqued earlier this year and let the marathon’s Directors know she wanted to help out however she could.  It turns out they needed a volunteer coordinator to process what would soon be a human tsunami eager to help out and she fit the bill. 

It wasn’t long before the director’s decided they needed a community outreach coordinator, as well as someone to help train and lead the volunteer course marshals who would help manage traffic and ensure the runners’ safety and the course’s integrity on race day.  Someone with close ties to the community, maybe a city employee – yeah, maybe even a cop! – who’d be willing to pitch in.

Some 8,000+ emails and telephone calls later (I’m not kidding) the marathon had a full complement of volunteers ready to put in motion the dozens of moving parts that constitute the massive undertaking of converting 26.2 miles of busy downtown city streets, quiet neighborhoods, remote forest preserve paths, and a college campus into a Boston-qualifying race.  Nearly 3,700 runners from all over flocked to our city, many with friends and family in tow for moral and physical support, and launched what we hope to eventually become one of the Top 10 marathons in the US.  At the end of the day we all looked back with pride at the race we’d put on, tired, proud, and already buzzing in anticipation of next year’s marathon, and thinking how to make it even bigger and better.


One of the common and recurring themes in our writing over the years has been the essential need to maintain sound emotional and physical health by finding proper balance between work and all those other things that make up the rest of your life.  A suggestion we’ve made often is to volunteer – to offer your gifts and time in the service of others.  We haven’t really expounded much on this, really, or why we suggest volunteering.  Policing is all about service, right?  It’s about serving and protecting the community, sometimes even putting your own safety in peril.  It’s about applying your own gifts, attitude, and aptitude to their proper role in society.  It’s about working the long hours, in less than ideal conditions, and standing strong in defense of the many who would cower.  Isn’t that enough?

Maybe it is, insofar as benefitting the community is concerned.  You give a lot, no doubt, and we’re all busy even away from the job, what with family and social obligations, side jobs, overtime shifts and extra-duty details.  Raising a family is hard work, and your primarily responsibility if you are a parent or guardian, but even that offers myriad opportunities to volunteer; think coaching youth sports, serving on school committees, scouting, organizing neighborhood activities, etc.  Even if you don’t have kids at home, but perhaps a significant other of some sort or are currently or permanently single, volunteering offers benefits well beyond those you provide the community.  Volunteering does as much for the servant as for the served, and what we do off the clock – for no compensation beyond the intrinsic – serves not just us but, I believe, also our profession.

Keep doing good deeds long enough and you'll probably turn out a good man in spite of yourself.    - Louis Auchincloss

Volunteering is, at its core and simplest definition, about giving to others.  But the very fact hundreds will flock to the opportunity to get up in the cold, dark early Sunday morning hours of an Illinois November to work for free in the service of complete strangers reveals something deeper.  That common people will give their own time to cook and serve hot meals at homeless shelters, clean litter boxes and scrub dog cages at their local animal shelter, or spend hours each week teaching illiterate adults to read so they can find the employment that’s eluded them speaks to the power of volunteering.

There is something soul-cleansing about giving service.  We can work hard all week chasing our paycheck, or because we feel obligated to give in exchange for what we know we’ll eventually get, but there is still a financial quid pro quo in play.  Volunteering is voluntary; we do it because we want to, because of how it makes us feel, and because there is great satisfaction in truly working for others.  And, no matter how good we think ourselves, we all innately know the dark corners of our own psyches.  Occupying ourselves with service helps push them back. 

Believing that I was born for the service of mankind, and regarding the care of the commonwealth as a kind of common property which, like the air and the water, belongs to everybody, I set myself to consider in what way mankind might be best served, and what service I was myself best fitted by nature to perform.     - Francis Bacon

We are all uniquely gifted and, for those who serve and protect, those gifts are perhaps especially unique.  Nonetheless, are all of your gifts being fully utilized?  No one job can fully serve us and we’ll feel unfulfilled – empty even – whenever gifts are left unopened and unused.  Volunteering gives us an opportunity to act in ways our work doesn’t.  It allows us to tap into rarely used resources. 

Are you athletically or musically gifted?  Do you have a way with animals, or an ability to teach art or history in a way that captivates others?  How about the skilled trades?  How could you give back with skills you rarely get to express as a cop, but with which you could serve away from the job?  We tend to sink ourselves into our professional vocation while suppressing other aspects of ourselves, and this is sad.  What services were you best fitted by nature to perform, and are you acting?

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.    - Mahatma Ghandi

Maybe the greatest benefit of volunteering for cops is how it takes us out of our comfort zone.  That is, we tend to see our service to others as standing between the good others and the bad others.  It tends to create a rather black and white dichotomy where people are either victims or offenders, and we mentally categorize them into one or the other of those camps.  Many of us then isolate ourselves into a separate police camp, from which we only reluctantly wander.

Volunteering takes us outside of that simple role and puts us in contact with positive people.  Volunteers may be naïve to the ways of our world, but they are almost invariably positive.  There’s something to be said about being around the hopelessly, unaccountably, unapologetically positive.  I like it. They generally like us.  Even if they do not, most are willing to suspend judgment by the mere fact you’re stepping up to serve alongside them and will open up to who you are, the world you know, and remain positive because they know you as an individual and not merely as cop.  Volunteering opens your mind and world, and your volunteering opens the minds and worlds of those you’ll be working alongside.

Look around.  What needs to be done that you can do?