Why I volunteer

I volunteer at a couple different places doing different things for different reasons, mostly selfish ones.  For several years now I’ve volunteered to drive a sweep van for the Manitoba marathon and the selfish reasons I do this are:

  1. I get to drive around barriers and up the wrong side of the street and no one can yell at me for it.
  2. Cops wave me through into places that they’re telling everyone else to stay out of.
  3. I get to talk on a radio all day.
  4. I get to meet interesting people.

This year was a good one.  We made several runs but weren’t too busy and were rarely bored.  We weren’t forced to keep anyone in the van too long.  We didn’t go near a relay zone all day (last year when we tried to drop someone off at a relay zone we discovered over 50 people waiting for buses that were no longer arriving; deciding which 7 to take back to the stadium was… uncomforable.  I’ve never seen so many people start limping so quickly…).   And I got to meet someone interesting…

The first call we got was for a wheelchair racer with a flat tire.  This caused some concern on my part because I’ve never worked with them before and certainly never received any training on special needs, how to lift, etc. so it was a journey into the unknown.  We arrived on the scene, my partner got out, and the racer got back in his low-slung racing wheelchair and backed up to the open passenger door.  Now you have to realize, I’m driving a 10-seat Sprinter van that *I* have to climb up two steps to get in to.


Not me, and not the actual van, but you get the idea. This thing is BIG.

Let me also explain that this guy’s legs are about the size of my arms and obviously completely useless.  Some of the competitors in the wheelchair division can walk with difficulty or can only walk for short distances and use the chair for their competitive outlet; this guy is clearly NOT in that category and there is no chance that he’s just going to pop out of the chair and limp into the van.

So I’m wondering how this is going to work and whether I’m going to end up looking incompetent.  I’m a bit stressed, and in my mind I’m composing the offended letter of complaint that this guy is going to send to the organizing committee, but keeping my cool, I just said, “Let me know if I can do anything.”

“Just sit there and be amazed,” he replied.   In seconds, using arms that I suspect were transplanted from a gorilla, he scrambled up into the seat with absolutely no assistance.  Well, to be honest, I’m just assuming he used his arms because the whole process was over so fast I have no idea how he did it.  I couldn’t swear that he didn’t teleport somehow.  My partner, a bit stunned that it was over so fast, grabbed the wheelchair, tossed it in the back of the van, jumped in one of the middle seats, slid the side door shut and we were off to the stadium.

My passengers are often upset, disappointed, or otherwise emotional about having had to abandon the race, so I try to make small-talk to take their minds off their problems.  In this case, I asked if it was his first marathon.

“Yes,” he said, “I’m ranked #3 in the world at 400m and thought I’d try to string a whole bunch of those together at once.”  It turns out that he’s been to 3 Olympics and 4 World Championships and has travelled to Beijing, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, England, France, and Germany among other places.  We had a great conversation and as I dropped him off I told him it was nice meeting him and wished him the best on his future endeavors.

That, that right there, that’s why I volunteer.

As he was getting out of the van he said, “Thanks, and thanks for making my day a little bit better.”

That?  That part’s just the gravy.


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