Yesterday, to get in the holiday spirit and give back, my mom and I volunteered to wrap gifts at the Barnes and Noble in 7 Corners. We wrapped presents for free, but there was a donation box out to benefit the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia. I know the Volunteer Coordinator, Bella Peñaranda, and when I saw the volunteer opportunity come in to Volunteer Arlington’s Online Volunteer Connection, I thought it might be a fun opportunity that my mom and I could do together.
I was starting to regret signing up when I woke up coughing and sneezing. Jay cracked a joke comparing me wrapping gifts with the early settlers giving blankets contaminated by small pox to Native Americans. I took a bunch of cold meds, grabbed a big mug of tea and shuffled out the door for my shift. My mom had gotten the days mixed up and was rushing to get to the store so I wouldn’t be there alone.
As soon as I arrived and found the gift wrap station, the Barnes and Noble staff happily greeted me, relieved to turn over the gift wrapping responsibilities. I guess that there hadn’t been any volunteers for the first shift and the staff were filling in. I jumped right into wrapping before getting a chance to read the guide or sign in. Luckily my customer service skills and experience in arts and crafts allowed me to stumble through my first few customers just fine. When I finally got a break in the line I read the very helpful handbook from the Literacy Council which offered clear instructions on checking for receipts (oops!), what to say about the Literacy Council, and how to handle removing prices from items. Soon after I got situated, my mom arrived and we settled in for a 3 hour shift.
One of our first customers was a coworker of mine, Alicia Beach, who supervises volunteers for the Arlington County Senior Travel Office. She gave mom some information about their trips and it was great to connect with someone that I knew. That sort of networking is actually a common feature of volunteering, as well connected active community members tend to volunteer and connect with other active community members.
Also early in our shift, we had a very amusing customer. Anyone who knows my mom, knows she is famous for telling you the right way to do something. In fact she got the store manager to set up an additional table for us and then rearranged the supplies for maximum efficiency. I usually just go with her suggestions because she is almost always right about the right way to do things. Well, we had a customer who outdid her. She was buying a gift for her daughter (who was standing right next to her and had picked out the gift). She then proceeded to give mom very detailed instructions on the right way to wrap the gift. Classic. Mom had to hand it to her… she was right about the right way to wrap a gift, and taught us some techniques that we used for the rest of our shift.
The rest of the shift went smoothly, with a pretty constant stream of customers and pretty consistent donations. My mom had volunteered as a tutor with the Literacy Council several years ago, so she was able to tell a personal story about the work that they do. This type of storytelling is essential and I was so glad my mom was willing to share.
In just a 3 hour shift I was starting to get a feel for the place, noticing who the regular customers were, seeing how the staff interact with one another. The staff from both Barnes and Noble and the attached Starbucks were very kind and helpful and helped to make it a pleasant experience. With all volunteer opportunities, the work environment and culture play a huge role in retention. I would have gladly come back to that store to work again.
When the next volunteer showed up to relieve us, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the shift had gone by. She was in an end-of-the-year volunteering marathon, having a certain number of hours to complete as part of a professional development program. She said that she had volunteered gift wrapping at Borders the day before for 8 hours. She tallied up the donations for the end of the day and they only tallied up to about $150. This struck both of us as a very low sum of money for the amount of volunteer labor that had been spent. However, when I think about our own experience, talking to people throughout the shift about the Literacy Council and just spreading some holiday cheer, I realize that there is an additional intangible value that we were able to contribute. Not to mention the value we gained, from spending quality time with one another and chatting with interesting people.
Learn more about the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia on their website: http://www.lcnv.org/
Donate here: https://www.lcnv.org/donate_secure.html
Volunteer here: https://www.lcnv.org/volunteers/index.cfm