Giving Back: The V-Word

*This is a lengthy post about our getting involved in volunteer work and, as the title suggests, giving back. It's not intended to be preachy, but more about a degree of self-discovery we've been going through these past few months and certain ideas for the future.

Kristin and Business School

Back in August, when I sat at the welcoming dinner for Kristin's Executive MBA (EMBA) program at Seattle University and listened to various speakers drone on and on about caring about the whole student and about being stewards for the community, I couldn't help but raise a disbelieving eyebrow or two. After all, this was business school. This is where people come to learn how to maximize profits and advance their careers. This is for the alpha employees. The Type-A personalities who rise in the ranks and ultimately serve only to fill the daily newspapers with reports of their greedy and immoral wrongdoings.

Yes, I can sometimes paint with a broad brush, but I can also admit when I'm wrong. And I was... at least so far.

One of the courses Kristin recently completed as part of the Executive Leadership Program (ELP) component of the degree was called "Social Justice" and it challenged small groups of students to address a need in the community. They were given free-reign to pick the area of concern, but they had to not simply complete a task for an existing agency; they had to come in from the outside, identify a need, and take the lead on filling that void. When it first began, Kristin didn't really think much of the assignment. It was a group project, which meant an abundance of meetings and conference calls, so she was already a bit down on the idea. She also didn't expect to get attached to the people or project she would be working on. Her initial expectations were that it would be just another class project, and she would simply move on to the next one when it was done. It's not that she's an unfeeling person -- quite the contrary -- it's just that serving as Operations Manager (and QA Manager) for a biotech company while also taking 20-credits of classes tends to not leave much room for unnecessary emotional involvement on one's plate.

She, too, can admit when she's wrong.

Kristin's group decided they wanted to get involved with women who suffer from domestic abuse. Together they came up with an idea to create a mentoring program that would train "graduates" from women's shelters to go back and mentor new arrivals on life's basics. Many of the women who arrive at these shelters are, for all intents and purposes, like hatchlings escaping the nest for the first time. They are not unlike a high school graduate heading out into the world on their own -- there's a lot they don't know. They need training in things like balancing a checkbook, home finances, putting together a grocery list and learning how to cook, and so on and so on. They also need specific mentoring in areas of surveilance and ways to protect their privacy from the abusers they seek to distance themselves from.

So Kristin and the three other students in her group came up with this concept and proceeded to shop it around to some of the Seattle area womans shelters. Many were simply either too understaffed or too unbelieving to welcome their suggestions, but they ultimately found a partner. This began back in late September and for the next five months, Kristin's group went to work. They identified the areas of highest need, created training modules, and found experts in the community who would be willing to train the first batch of mentors. All pro-bono of course. They routinely met with the Director of the shelter and her staffmembers, and made sure pamphlets and other materials were all in order. And throughout the process, Kristin got to meet the women who would be learning from the mentors and got a chance to hear their stories. Kristin gave her final presentation to her class and professors a couple weeks ago and the Executive Director of the shelter was given time to address the class. Kristin says hearing her gratitude and astonishment at what they were able to accomplish in so little time while working full-time and going to school really hit her. Here she thought this was just another group project and it ultimately really impacted people's lives and is going to help a lot of women.

The project is technically over -- Kristin got an A -- but she's not done. To her own amazement, she wants to continue working on this idea and return to the other shelters and hopefully help them implement the program there. A couple of her group-mates also want to continue working on it and they hope to even add additional mentoring modules and get more people involved in the mentoring program.

I mentioned the oxymoronic nature of the phrase "corporate responsibility" a week ago, but maybe for the right people, there's something to it? After all, consider this tale of irony: Kristin went to business school at her employer's request and now thinks she might want to work for a non-profit. In her words, "I think I'd rather work to help people directly than by way of a bottom line."

Working With the Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club

I'm coming to realize that one of the things that separate our relationship from that of many other couples (dare I say most) is the amount of time Kristin and I spend talking. We routinely find ourselves sitting on the kitchen counter talking for hours about all sorts of things: the future, kids, politics, work, travel, finances, etc. And one of the topics that has come up more and more over the past couple years was the concept of volunteering. We both felt like we wanted to alter our pattern of constantly taking, but weren't really sure where to begin. There were a few obvious options but they didn't really appeal to us.

Then a couple things happened. First, Kristin saw the impact she was having with her Social Justice project and realized that there are a ton of different ways to volunteer that we never thought of. And, secondly, I learned that the Board of Directors for BBTC was ponying up the money to pay the salary of the Interim Executive Director. This blew me away. The club, err Organization, had grown so much under the previous Director's five-year tenure, that we needed increased funds to attract a qualified replacement. The BBTC had grown large enough to actually have to compete with the private sector for candidates (as an aside, for those who wonder why the top people at non-profits have six-figure incomes, this is why. They have to be paid comparable to private-sector talent). And, presumably, the new full-time ED will command a much higher salary than the Organization could previously offer. So, unlike a corporation's Board, our Board not only doesn't get paid for their time, but they are practically required to make very substantial donations. And their dividends are in miles of trail, not stock bonuses.

And here I was, chipping in my measly $25 annual donation and doing nothing but riding, riding, and riding. Mountain bike advocacy needs both money and people on the ground building and maintaining trails, but I couldn't help but feel that my paltry donation and relatively few hours spent working on trail was accomplishing neither. I suddenly felt very dirty.

It's no secret that I don't enjoy trail work. I try to attend at least 4 work parties a year, but I'll never say I enjoy it. For me, it's like going to the dentist -- another thing I don't do as often as I should. But, as with Kristin and her Social Justice class, I realized that there are other ways to get involved than cutting new trail. As you may have read, I went to a meeting in the fall about a certain State Parks and National Forest project right in my area that could possibly open up 20-30 miles of new mountain bike trails. How could I not get excited about that? I jumped at the chance to get involved -- you might even say forced myself into the process -- and am very happy to now be considered BBTC's point-person for these two projects. And it's been quite an experience so far. I've gotten to meet the Director of State Parks two weeks ago and, just this past Tuesday, got to sit down with many of the land use managers in the area for a group round table discussion, two of whom we're working closely with on the aforementioned project. Additionally, the former Executive Director of BBTC, the awesome Justin Vander Pol, is coming over today at 3 o'clock to spend a couple hours training me on the relatively peculiar grant-proposal software the National Recreational Trails Program insists its applicants use. And next week we hope to get out on the ground and look at the terrain in question more closely.

I'm also hoping to be more involved with the Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park being built in Sammammish and other projects, both on the ground where needed, and perhaps also from a behind-the-scenes role as well. And it's gotten me really excited. Granted, this isn't the same as helping battered women get back on their feet, but it's what I'm (hopefully) good at and we are working to create trails that will be ridden for many generations of mountain bikers and recreationists to come. Surely, that's got to count for something, right?

After all, regardless of how en vogue it is today to bash government-works projects like the CCC, the truth is bikers and hikers like us use many of the trails and lodges they built over 60 years ago. And that's what I try to remind myself when I get frustrated with the slow process of getting things done in today's world. We're not building for us, we're building for the future. Who knew back in the 1930's that the CCC would contribute so directly to a guy like me, in 2008, enjoying his quality of life so much thanks to their projects? With any luck, somebody in 2050 will love being a mountain biker in Washington thanks in part to what the BBTC helps to accomplish now. Just like we enjoy the trails built decades prior.

But, like everything else in this world, it also takes money. Not everyone has some to give, especially these days, but when being honest with myself I have to admit that I could definitely give a lot more than the token $25 donation I was giving. After all, each year when I do my taxes and I see the demographics report TaxCut spits out about those in our income range, we're always way below the national average for charitable giving. And, frankly, it got kind of embarrassing. So I decided this spring to make a much larger donation. A ten-fold increase, which I also hope to give again in the fall for a total of a 20x increase. It's still not a whole lot of money, but I think it's enough to make more of an impact. I've gotten a few nice kudos from BBTC members about the increased donation, but it's not really necessary. Anyone with a bike collection like mine -- and I know more who fit that bill than don't -- should really consider donating more each year.

The Future

Although I haven't posted about it lately, Kristin and I have been talking quite a bit about our RTW trip. We spent quite a few hours this weekend going through guidebooks we have looking at options for the British Isles and jotting down places we think we want to visit and others we think might not be worth the travel costs. I must say that planning a trip where time is of little concern is really fun. I'm also excited about the likelihood that my sister and her then-husband will join us in Edinburgh for the Scotland, Wales, and Ireland portion of the trip. The company will be great to have and being able to split a car rental four ways will be wonderful!

But, more importantly, we've spent a lot of time over the past few months talking about the trip in terms of taking time to volunteer and, also, about what happens when we get home. Kristin and I met today with the people at Village Volunteers, a Seattle-based NGO that organizes 2~8 week volunteer programs in Ghana, Kenya, India, and Nepal. Admittedly, the trip isn't for a number of years, but we're pretty intent on spending as many 6~8 weeks in Kenya with Village Volunteers. We've read a large number of reports from people who have used their agency and have yet to find one that raised any red-flags. The conditions will be pretty spartan -- this isn't one of the ritzier Volunteer Vacations outfits -- but it gets more to the point of the trip: a life-changing experience and a chance to truly meet our global neighbors. We're not as foolish enough to dive into a 2-month committment without first testing the waters, hence our meeting today. We're hoping to begin volunteering at the Seattle location to really get a feel for the agency and start helping their cause on the front-end. We also plan to spend 1~2 weeks next year when Kristin finishes her EMBA program volunteering either here in the US or in Mexico. The group Global Volunteers has programs based in the US where you can help in various native american communities, and that's something I've long been interested in doing.

So what about afterwards? Well, nothing is definite now. We're enjoying the now and particularly enjoying the endless conversations and verbal daydreaming we partake in about the trip, but I'll be honest and say that, depending on how the Kenya and/or Nepal experiences go we may very well sign up for the Peace Corps. That's a 27-month comittment (with training period) and aside from the $5000 they give you upon completion, it's unpaid. But the potential is huge, especially for people with the skillsets that Kristin and I bring. One assignment we saw was in Mongolia -- they were looking for business/leadership people to help former nomads get their micro-businesses started -- and the same area was also looking for, essentially writers/editors to help write travel brochures and work on doing tourism marketing. Kristin and I saw these two tasks next to one another and felt as if they were almost written specifically for us.

But, again, this is all very pie-in-the-sky right now. Kristin and I daydream a lot and we daydream out loud. Sometimes we follow through, sometimes we don't, but so far it has always worked out for the best.

The point of all of this was to say that for a DINK couple like us, it took a while but we finally see ways for us to get involved and give back rather than be constantly focused on ourselves. We don't have limitless resources or time -- who does? -- but we can finally say where our passions truly lie and what it is we want to do, or think we want to do.

And if it took a business school to kick us in the ass and get us to give back, then so be it.

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