PROVO — Bill Hulterstrom, head of United Way in Utah County, likes to tell about the woman whose husband was dying of a degenerative disease just after Christmas.
A group of well-wishers had provided the family with presents, toys, gift certificates.
And she was embarrassed, distressed, instead of thrilled. "My friends all think I'm poor," she told him, horrified.
Then he tells another story, this one of a low-income family that had been struggling for a long time. This year, the dad managed to find extra work and set aside a little here and there to buy gifts for his kids. It was meager, but he was proud. And a local helping-hand program was in danger of completely overshadowing his efforts.
These are tales for the donor, the volunteer, a testament to the fact that the results of a good deed are not always perfect or even predictable. That the donor and recipient may not always see things exactly the same.
It's okay, says Hulterstrom, who tells the story when he speaks on voluntarism to groups. That doesn't mean anyone should stop trying to help others. In nearly 30 years doing this job, he's developed some ideas about how best to volunteer or donate.
"I really believe the love thy neighbor concept of charity best start with your neighbor. Find need as close to home as you can," he says.
That means the person who needs a ride to a doctor's office, the neighbor who struggles to shovel her walk. It's easier to start with neighbors and friends "and that's how you learn to do things with strangers you don't know as well."
If you have to sign up a long time in advance or there's a long list to volunteer for a particular job, "go find a shorter list. There's a lot that needs to be done," he says. If something's being taken care of, be a solution to a different problem.
He sees "major holes" in efforts to help teenagers and senior citizens. And it's "easier to recruit a tutor to help a cute 7-year-old than a not-so-cute 15-year-old."
Jennifer Canter, director of St. Anne's Center, which serves the homeless in Ogden, says people don't realize how uncomplicated getting involved can be. Sometimes it's a matter of showing up. Many agencies, including hers, have a full-time volunteer coordinator. Anyone over 18 can just walk in and offer to help, to work just an hour or every week. They can write thank you letters to donors, answer phones, sort hygiene kits. Without volunteers, she says, they'd have to hire a lot more staff. With them, the center can operate around the clock, providing housing and a soup kitchen, with only nine actual employees.
Many agencies welcome kids as volunteers, too. Those include food banks and nursing homes and others.
But there is a special place in the hearts of those who rely on volunteers for that rare helping hand that is consistent, Hulterstrom says. People can show up and be a blessing once. But if Mrs. Smith knows she can expect you every Tuesday afternoon, it's something that she can look forward to all week. "And your skills and relationships both get enhanced," Hulterstrom says.
It helps to know who you're serving. In Utah County, organizers moved the application process for Sub for Santa to the city library because they'd seen that low-income families did not use the library. Applicants were given two books in a bag for the children. They were given a tour of the children's library and could get a gift-wrapped library card to give the child for Christmas. It opened a new world for those families — who now feel at home in the library.
And one person's efforts can grow.
David Levinson, a Californian and author of "Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins," was just one guy asked by his rabbi in 1999 to organize a synagogue mitzvah day — a day of good deeds. It is now a massive multi-ethnic, multidenominational event that grew first to a community service day and then to a community building event that has spilled geographically. This spring, more than 50,000 people of all ages and backgrounds helped out at 500 different sites where there were needs, he told the Deseret News.
The key to being a good volunteer is to start by deciding what you like to do, he said. "It should be fun and you should have a good time. So if you really hate to cook, don't offer to cook at a homeless shelter. I loathe paperwork, but I've discovered there are people who like to do that.... The point is, find something you like to do. If you're uncomfortable at a homeless shelter, visit seniors, work with animals, give blood."
He cautions volunteers to manage their expectations. Volunteering is not like the movies: cue soft music, tears of gratitude and total transformation. It may not be that way, but can still be worthwhile. "Figure out why you're volunteering and be honest with yourself. Maybe you want to give back. Maybe you saw a family under the bridge and it broke your heart and you want to help. Or maybe you want to teach your kids. Those are all perfectly good reasons, but know the why," Hulterstrom says.
His motto? "It's all good."