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My Post-Covid Volunteer Ramp-Up

We are proud of our people and how much they support TRG Marketing and our pro bono clients, and giving of their time and talents throughout our community in myriad ways. This month, we highlight Account Supervisor Aileen Smith in our TRG Volunteer Spotlight.

Here’s a look at my pre- and post-Covid volunteering story:

  • Pre-March, 2020: Serving on two boards, involved in community projects, meetings several evenings per week, enjoying helping but feeling a bit overwhelmed/over-programmed sometimes
  • March, 2020 – Summer, 2021: Dead stop on so many activities, though got pretty good at Zoom lighting and backgrounds
  • Summer, 2021: Revisiting priorities, with lots of thought about how and what I want to get back into

Sound familiar? I’ll bet this is a common theme; busy, busy before the pandemic, an abrupt interruption, and a consideration once things began to open up again about what and where to step forward. For me, one activity was an easy “yes.” I couldn’t wait to get back to volunteering with AFS-USA, a high school exchange program with roots in Europe after WWII, founded by ambulance drivers who wanted to bring German students to the U.S. and send American kids to Germany to help mend the hurt between our two countries, one family at a time.

The program has grown since that start in the mid-1900s to include students from nearly 100 countries. AFS-USA is recognized by the U.S. State Department as a diplomatic program; the students who go to other countries from the U.S. are seen as ambassadors.

But what really gets me about being involved in this program is spending time with the kids. One of my areas of responsibility is to oversee a small group – usually around 10 students – at each of three orientations that take place during the school year. I meet my group in September, a few weeks after their arrival in the Milwaukee area. The volunteers who organize the orientations mix the kids up for the small groups: boys and girls, outgoing and shy, athletic and artistic, strong English speakers and less skilled ones, European and South American and Asian. When I meet them, they’re still excited about being here, still getting to know their families, still figuring out how an American high school works. We talk about their expectations before they came and what they’ve already learned about American culture that surprises them, or even disappoints them. Three universals: no one likes American bread (too sweet), American food portion sizes are really big, and American high school is easier and more fun than what they left at home.

It’s been said there’s no such thing as a completely altruistic act: as much as we give and volunteer and support because a cause strikes a chord, there’s always a little something in it for us.

And the little something I get from volunteering with AFS? The jolt of hope and energy when spending time with these extraordinary young people. On the surface they’re typical teenagers: funny and annoying and insightful and selfish all at the same time. But what makes them so inspirational is their courage and sense of adventure. I know when I was 15, I wouldn’t have had it in me to leave home to live with a family in a country where I didn’t speak the language. What a thing that is!

Bigger than that, though, is the corny but true goal of the program, which is to make the world a more peaceful place one family at a time. What American host families gain is a chance to look up and out of their everyday and gain some global perspective. What the visiting kids gain is maturity and judgment from the daily challenges of living in a new culture. What the world gains is seeds of understanding planted in every country by a student who studied in the U.S. about what it’s really like here: how we’re not homogeneous and how what people might think they know from sitcoms about the American way of life is not based in reality.

The time I spend helping AFS hum is helpful to the organization. But what I gain from being with these kids is so much bigger.