Keeping Community and Volunteering from a Distance

One of the parts of my job as associate pastor that I love best is managing the Pittsburgh Chapter of Days for Girls. I have a core group of Pittsburgh native volunteers (about 10). These women (and men) live in stable homes around our city. A couple of them are church members but many are draw to the DFG program because of their desire to make a difference in the world, especially in the area of women’s health or making sure young women receive an education. Others are drawn because reusable menstrual pads are a needed and provide women a way to manage their menstruation without significant harm to the environment. Don’t get me started on toxic charity that gives “us” something to do but no one actually wants what we are making for “them” or worse the items create more problems than they solve. I’ve learned a little about non-profits and a lot about what it means to build a team that empowers each other, to listen to suggestions (even if I don’t like the idea, but someone else is allow to be right too) with an open and loving heart. And of course, how to love as unconditionally as possible.

Anyway, the bulk of the work we (the leadership team, three women and myself) do is organize our core volunteers (and our work room) for the events for our large group of volunteers. There is a half way house a ten minute walk away from the church that houses women who are leaving the prison system and working on getting a job and a stable home plan. The house can hold about 50 women at their max and women rotate in and out at random intervals based on the approval of their home plan. I’ve never documented their names or recorded their emails and phone numbers because they were required to be with us. I have contact information for the counselors at the house. Anyway, I’m sorry I have not recoded at least their names, there have easily been hundreds. Some are not memorable, a few have left an indelible marks on my heart and the rest fall somewhere in between. I’ve learned a little about our prison system and a lot about what it means to live in a community you didn’t choose, to listen to stories (even if they aren’t true) with an open and loving heart. And of course, how to love as unconditionally as possible.

The church is located in an area of town close to a few of the universities and student housing. I have a folder full of scrap paper and one attempt at capturing names and emails that is a couple years old. I hate data entry and shelf reading at the library, both of which I did as work/study jobs in school. Anyway, there have been hundreds of student volunteers too. Many of them are required to have service hours for their programs or sorority/fraternity or graduate school applications. Most of them have more than one major and a couple of minors in the works. They belong to clubs and organizations focused on making the world a better place. They bring a new energy to the room. They are passionate about so many issues to name a few: health/wellness, access to medical care, poverty relief, women’s rights, sustainability (which is far broader than I ever imagined and I’m still not certain I can list all of the possible work for a sustainability major). They are mindful about their personal wellness; physical, emotional, and spiritual. I’ve learned a little about campus life and a lot about what it means to carefully choose your community, to listen to hopes and aspirations (even when I doubt it will work as easily as they dream) with an open and loving heart. And of course, how to love as unconditionally as possible.

You can imagine with a diverse group of volunteers it was necessary to create a mission and vision that expanded on the Days for Girls mission and vision to fit our unique group. This paragraph is what unites my leadership team and my core group of volunteers to the groups of volunteers that visit in different frequencies.

Days for Girls Pittsburgh Chapter additions to the mission and vision:

The Pittsburgh Chapter was established by the Presbyterian Women of Third Church as a mission project to help meet the needs of girls and women around the world and also offer us an opportunity to connect with our community, specifically the women at the Community Corrections Center and nearby college campuses.  We hope that this time together empowers women and shatters the stigmas that separate young and old, prisoner and free.  We will work together to create a world with dignity, health, and opportunity for all.  To that end, we recognize that our chapter will have continued need of people who are willing to teach sewing skills to individuals from these groups who may be transient.  We also must be aware that some individuals we invite in may not be able to learn sewing skills.  Therefore, we need to be intentional about having meaningful non-sewing work at each of our meetings.  Our intention is to make working on this project accessible to everyone.  We will promise to share a meal at each sewing event in an effort to provide nutritious food to our volunteers and to build community around our common table.

You can read more about how we got to this mission statement in “It’s Important to Ask Why“. A more recent document on grounding our work in meaning is “Quality Control as Love for Neighbor“.

The closures due to COVID-19 issues have changed our Chapter dramatically. All of the students and women living at the house were sent home in a process full of grief and heart ache. And because of my lack of ways to communicate with individuals (no one’s fault but my own), I have missed opportunities to say good bye in meaningful ways. Recreating this community in a digital/virtual world has had its challenges. I set up a zoom meeting on our DFG Pittsburgh Chapter Facebook page to see who would pop in. At the beginning it was my leadership team. Then we added a few people from Pittsburgh North and Grove City teams. It was great to share ideas and tips with them, but mostly it was nice to see other faces. A couple of college students popped in to say hello for which we rejoiced. We got updates on school work, MCATs and medical school applications, mission projects delayed, and requests for volunteer work. In the last week I’ve received emails from students whose summer plans were canceled and they wanted to see if there was anything they could do for Days for Girls. I am thankful for those who made the effort to reach out to me to see what they could do to help, you have inspired me to think about ways in which we can connect and work together even at a distance. And by distance, I mean too far for someone to pick up supplies and materials and work from home as my leadership (and some of the core volunteers) are able to do. So, if you are out of the area, but still want to help, there are meaningful ways to participate.

One of the most meaningful ways to be engaged in the Days for Girls work is to take the Ambassador for Women’s Health Training. It is free and online. It takes a good bit of time to complete, but it is well worth it. For the person getting the training, they are receiving great health information that they can pass along to others and seeing why DFG works the way they do. For me, I’m getting a volunteer that has invested time and energy into learning more about the work of the overall organization and is therefore another advocate for making sure our quality controls are followed. This is a win for all of the people who volunteer and for the girls and women who receive our kits. If you have not done so, please consider taking this training course. Link below.

The leadership team is thinking about ways we can give volunteers a more hands on opportunity like they are used to getting in our sewing room. The best we could come up with for now, is working with wash cloths because they can be purchased anywhere and do not require templates to process and fold for use in the kits. But we will keep brainstorming.

If you have ideas and suggestions please email them to me (or comment below). I am in desperate need of a system to record volunteers and their contact information that does not require me to do hours of data entry. I brought home every piece of paper I have with names/emails/phone numbers but I have still managed to avoid the chore even with being isolated in my own home.

Volunteering with the Pittsburgh Chapter of Days for Girls from a Distance

  • Join our weekly zoom meetings Wednesdays at 4:00-6:00.  The link for the meeting is pinned to the top of our Facebook page.
  • Prepare Wash Cloths for up-coming distributions:
  • Collect hotel sized bar soap
Personal branding photos by Dominique Murray Photography

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