The Real Reward

I help teach English to adult immigrants. Recently, the teacher I work with asked what kind of gift card I’d prefer as a thank you gift for volunteering. I didn’t want to make a fuss—I know the gift card is well-intentioned—so I chose one. But the truthful answer was that I didn’t want a reward.

What’s weird is that if I were a volunteer coordinator, I would think it was very important to acknowledge and thank volunteers. Finding a suitable way to please a disparate group would be hard. I would probably land on gift cards, too. I’m not criticizing the gift options or the school’s impulse to thank me.

I think my discomfort has more to do with how I was raised. My parents set an example with their many volunteer activities—they did far more than I ever do. Their outlook was that you’re supposed to pitch in and help. It’s just what you do.

Another value that my parents conveyed was that it’s even better if you donate your time or money without any public acknowledgement. For years, they were secret angel donors for the parish grade school and the church choir. If kids didn’t have money for supplies or a field trip, or if the choir needed more funds for a tour, the principal and the choir director knew my parents would cover it. Hardly anybody knew my parents did this. My father mentioned it to me once, and the scope of their contributions only came to light when they died.

What I had trouble putting into words when asked about the gift card is that volunteering is as much about my needs as it is about theirs. The world at large can be dismissive of people who are 60 and beyond—assuming that we’re clueless, set in our ways, etc., etc. Volunteering is a way of reminding myself that I’m knowledgeable and have something valuable to contribute. I feel seen, useful, and appreciated. That’s what makes volunteering worthwhile.

I don’t think I deserve a medal (or a gift card) for putting in a few spare hours a week. Corny as it sounds, acknowledgement comes every week in the form of students who make a point to thank me at the end of class. Also gratifying are the students who return after completing the class to share their excitement about landing a better job—one requiring good English skills. Plus, the teacher often asks my opinion about her proposed lesson plans and always thanks me for coming. That’s good. That’s plenty.