23 May 2006
by Joan Raiselis
In the 1960s, where I keep my childhood, the notion of volunteering meant one of two things: “helping out” at your child’s school collecting lunch money or actually working in the cafeteria kitchen spooning out sloppy Joe’s or English Muffin pizzas; or, on the other side of the spectrum, “volunteering” at the Junior League in the center of town. I suspect that within the communities of women (and they were mostly women), who were regulars to the volunteering routine, there were other possibilities but it was from this two-option frame of mind where I began my own quest.
It was not until I slid into my fifth decade and began to reevaluate the personal and professional choices I had made in my life that I realized changes were in order. I did not divorce my husband, I did not pierce my navel, I did not augment the size or shape of my breasts, nor did I tuck my tummy. I decided to volunteer at one of the organizations around my neighborhood that sparked my interest both in the work that I might perform as well as their mission. Recognizing the fact that I may not be content or fulfilled by the first or second institution I would try, the process continued for a couple of years before I found a sure fit.
When the Stone Barns Center opened in Pocantico Hills in May, it was a culmination of years of coordination and planning behind the scenes but also, of much talk and speculation in the neighborhood. For me, it would become the answer to my need to feel productive within my community, as well as the personal fulfillment of a long held dream to work a farm. The fact that it is an organization bent on teaching the basics of farming to a population who are so rarely exposed to the actual process, and that it does it organically, ethically, and with a sense of the local community is fertilizer on the compost, so to speak.
When I inquired about the possibility of helping out, the only request that I made was that I would not be stuffing envelopes but would be out in the field or in the greenhouse “getting my hands dirty”. The staff was very happy to accommodate my wishes and by the beginning of June I was already knee deep in sunflower seedlings, amaranth weeds and harvesting radicchio.
Participating within the beauty of the Normanesque architecture of the barns was a perk I found hard to resist. Having practiced as a licensed architect for a number of years before having my children and then as an exhibit designer afterwards, roaming among the farm buildings, the dooryard garden, the upper field where the tomatoes and artichokes and kolrabi soak up all the sunlight the day has to offer, I soon knew that I had found the place where my search would end. I now have the privilege to contribute to the success of the Stone Barn project, as small as my contribution is - a mere six hours per week - but as important for me, I have found the situation where the benefits are mutual. Sure, I spend a good three hours, two times per week, hunched over rows of parsley or celery, weeding until I can barely stand, humbling myself before my younger coworkers as I rub my hamstrings back into shape, but my efforts are appreciated, I have no doubt. What makes it all worthwhile is that the energy I invest in them is doubly returned by the satisfaction I glean from being there, working with the soil, visiting the pigs in the grove on the hill, and mostly, getting to know the incredibly dedicated people who work there and who have made the entire environment there so a vibrant and soulful.
I am a volunteer there but I don’t feel like a volunteer. I feel like a part of a community of like-minded people, older and younger, paid and unpaid, experienced and not, from near and far, who have grouped together to make a mission come to life. It took quite a few months for me to find that place - circumstances in which I would be so thoroughly compensated both spiritually and physically. For me, it was a farm, not three miles from my house. I feel very fortunate in the convenience of it all; however, the point is that I traveled a much longer road to find the place that has come to suit me so well. And as selfish as it may sound to have set such a priority on my own satisfaction, I think that it is the factor in this quest that will sustain my dedication and enthusiasm.
For now, until school begins again, my eleven-year-old son joins me on Tuesdays and Fridays. I work with “the weeds”, as he says, and he works with the animals. We have made it a routine to work hard for the morning and then reward ourselves with a lunch at Bella’s, the local luncheonette. Does my son think about the fact that he is working for no pay? Not at all. In fact, at eleven he would never expect to be paid. He is being immersed in a philosophy that encourages principle over profit and the great satisfaction one can feel when one is physically productive. The high one can feel in “helping out”, the pure goodness of the act - a feeling akin to donating blood or working at a soup kitchen Christmas morning - is a bonus.
In a society that places so much importance and value on one’s ability to make money, he is seeing the profit of working the land with his hands and of working in a cooperative effort to achieve a worthy goal.
When I look back on my previous perceptions, I would never have thought to have anything in common with the Lily Pulitzer type women who typified the “volunteer” for me as I was growing up. I now chastise my snobbish bias. Whether it is the Junior League or the local library, a presidential campaign or the neighborhood farm, volunteering can be a means to contribute to a meritorious cause while reaping a harvest of personal benefits in the process.