‘Away we go’ on path to volunteer commitment that may last decades

David Phillips
Reflections From My Notebook

A recent story about a local man’s recent retirement from firefighting made me laugh. It all started 48 years ago when a co-worker suggested he join the department, to which he told our reporter his reply was, “OK, and away we went.”

Now, I’ve never volunteered for anything as physically, mentally and emotionally taxing as fighting fires or responding to medical emergencies, something the same person started three years after his introduction to firefighting, but his recollection reminds me that I, too, have been swept up in suggestions to volunteer my time.

I’ve served on chambers of commerce, the EDA, a local diversity council, a regional tourism association, a short-lived photography club, various short-term committees, a service organization, a charity organization, a city celebration committee, a community foundation, even a country club board despite being a mediocre golfer. I’ve also volunteered to serve as a school chaperone various times, to help at various events and to organize various local races. There may even be others I have forgotten over time.

This list isn’t meant to show I’m altruistic, as often my intent is selfish — to improve the community, which would in turn make my business stronger, at least I hope. Besides, as I look back on my volunteer list, the real reason I am so involved is mostly because I have a really hard time saying no.

That lengthy list also explains why I have this feeling I haven’t been a particularly effective volunteer. I have too much quantity, and not enough quality, spreading myself too thin, particularly lately.

It wasn’t just the firefighter who recently reminded me about my volunteer work. One regional organization I belong to, the Rochester Track Club, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. A couple weeks ago a reporter from the Post Bulletin interviewed me because I am serving as president of the group right now.

When the club began, I was still a kid and only ran in gym class when required so I wasn’t much help on the history. Besides, running wasn’t common back then as a history of the club noted that it started when “running was something strange in which only a few people participated.”

Even when I joined the club 20 years ago, there were only a handful of races, there was no dedicated running store in the area and runners didn’t wear GPS watches.

Now that I consider running a part of my life, I have become involved in more than just stepping out the door and taking off. I don’t mind helping out at running events, but a newspaper interview wasn’t something I had signed up for since I much prefer being the interviewer, which is something I do all the time in my profession, than the interviewee, which I have experienced rarely in my life.

I was pretty well prepared for the interview, but one question made me laugh. The reporter asked me something along the lines of what runners are like, or what traits they share.

In a way, I think I could have answered with a generality, but my mind immediately fixated on a friend from Byron, an Irish guy who always has a story and a joke to keep us entertained, a contrast to the more introverted people that seem to make up our pack. He also doesn’t look like a runner as people would be more likely to picture him on a bar stool than at a starting line of a race. Yet, he routinely runs much faster than most of us do at any distance.

Needless to say, I couldn’t offer a stereotype of runners because I can find many other exceptions that contrast to what I sometimes think of as a typical runner. I couldn’t even think of a common motivation for people to become runners, something else he asked, as the running community has greatly expanded to include such a wide variety of people with varying interests.

Another question the reporter asked me is why someone would join the club or what it offers runners. Although my answer never made it to the story, I responded that running is a lonely sport in many ways and people need an avenue to come together for support and community.

And, you know, maybe that response explains why I join so many other groups. My profession as a writer is often a lonely pursuit, sitting at a keyboard typing away, with many of my human interactions being pragmatic — to get the story for my newspaper. Perhaps my joining instinct is a way to seek deeper connections with people in the community.

Then again, it probably comes down to my inclination to embrace ideas proposed to me, even when it might not be in my best interests. When a person comes to me and tells me I should do something, “away we go.”