Monday, October 21, 2013

The Difference Volunteering Makes

In addition to 140 hours of classroom training on job search techniques and executive level professional topics, an important part of the LA Fellows program involves each Fellow volunteering at least 100 hours of their time and talents for a project at a nonprofit organization of their choice. The volunteer component is the piece that sets LA Fellows apart from other programs designed to retrain and get unemployed individuals back to work.

The most recent class (or “Cohort” in Fellow-speak) graduated August 30th and has shown amazing cohesiveness and commitment to staying in touch, supporting each other and making sure they all stay on the path of what they learned in the program until they are re-employed. The “Crazy 8’s,” as LA Fellows Cohort 8 has dubbed themselves, recently gathered for their weekly accountability meeting to check in on their progress, cheer for those who’ve landed jobs so far and chart their plans for the next week. Most of them have now completed their 100 hour commitment to their nonprofits and they reflected on their experiences.

Bruce Elsperger, an experienced live-entertainment management professional, chose to donate his hours to EngAGE, an organization that brings the arts to local senior centers. Bruce spent his hours teaching drama and improv classes for three of their centers around the Los Angeles area. When he started LA Fellows training, he was thinking of finding a career that would allow him to work with baby-boomers making the transition to the next phase of life. According to Bruce, his volunteer internship reaffirmed that passion and made him more sure of the path he wants to pursue.

At one center he taught at, he had a dramatic performance for their last class. On the day of the performance, one of the seniors was taken to the hospital (over protestations that he couldn’t miss the show!) and Bruce had to fill in. That meant someone had to take over the duties of the narrator that Bruce, as the director, would otherwise have done. He asked one of the ladies who came to the group but had not previously participated if she would take over for him. She was honored that he believed she could do it and told him after the show, “You have just fulfilled one of the items on my bucket list.” 

At another site, a small group gathered on their last day to do prepared readings. One woman arrived for the class who had not previously been available to attend. Bruce let her know it was the last day, but asked if she would be willing to do a cold reading with one of the other residents. She agreed, with the disclaimer that she had never done anything like that before. As showbiz folks would say, she killed, she performed like an expert actress. As she returned to her seat showered by applause, she told him “You have fulfilled a 5 year old’s dream.”

As each of the three classes was ending, evaluation forms were passed out to the participants to solicit feedback on the experience. There were many rave reviews, praising his efforts, but Bruce told the other Fellows at the meeting about one particular evaluation that really touched him. After the participant wrote that the best thing about the class was the teacher, the form asked what he/she had learned. The answer was: “to try to live again.”

As Bruce’s experience shows, LA Fellows volunteer component gives participants an opportunity to try new things, keep their existing skills current and test their ideas for transitioning. It also reminds Fellows that they are not defined by their unemployment, they are still professionals, valuable experts who have a lot to contribute.  The organizations Fellows serve, and their clients, benefit in so many meaningful ways.

Of course the most important thing is that LA Fellows helps people get back to work. In addition to all the good he did for others, Bruce got a paying job offer to teach a series of classes for one of the senior centers he worked at. Bravo Bruce! Another LA Fellows success story, in more ways than one.

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