Tapped Out

Sometimes volunteers can feel like a cupful of help in an ocean of need - but there are ways to keep spirits up


IN HER SPRINGFIELD, OHIO, HOUSEHOLD, FAYE Houston grew up with the understanding that "God comes first, others second and me third."

As an adult, and then as a working mother with many personal pursuits, Houston didn't adhere strictly to that creed because it was a "recipe for being depressed," she realized.

Still, Houston, the retired chief of humanities at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, continues to wrestle -- guiltily -- with competing demands for her time.

A longtime member of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Nativity, she has spent the last several years helping to launch a community arts center in the Pimlico church's disadvantaged neighborhood.

Houston, 63, serves on the board of the Handel Choir of Baltimore, of which she is a member. She and her husband, Bill Fallowfield, a retired Episcopal priest, also attend to the "fairly dire needs" of 20 godchildren.

The Charles Village resident dreams of making a religious pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain with a friend. Houston's life, though, is crammed with obligations. She worries about her "limited years of the physical and mental ability to do this stuff."

In Baltimore, where privation is commonplace, volunteers are a necessity. But as Houston and any dedicated volunteer know, it is possible to devote endless hours to working with kids, feeding the hungry, staffing homeless shelters and still find that such efforts hardly make a dent.

Faced with these intractable problems, volunteers may also find themselves assuming more responsibilities than anticipated. Committees have a way of sprouting subcommittees. Tasks tend to generate more tasks. Offer to tutor a child once a week and the next thing you know, you're on the board of that tutoring program, writing grants to ensure its future.

In a culture where individual rights and the public good are often at odds, the question never abates: To what extent should citizens donate their time to others? It's a particularly pressing question in a place like Baltimore, where the need for assistance is so acute. The answer often eludes those such as Houston, who find themselves compensating for society's shortcomings, and deeply resenting the economic and educational inequities that leave so many behind.

Although they treasure the connections they make through their service, wise volunteers calculate imperfect equations for giving generously of themselves while learning how to safeguard their own well-being.

"I decided the issue isn't time," Houston says. "The issue is where your boundaries are. Unfortunately, that's not something you can answer once." Houston and her husband make themselves available to their godchildren so they can be the "beneficiary of our experience, affection and connection." If an emergency occurs, though, that boundary can quickly shift, Houston says.

A life of service

Among numerous volunteer activities, Nancy Clark of Cedarcroft works three mornings a week at CARES, a food pantry run by the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp. A retired city school teacher who also established and ran a lodge for homeless women, Clark, 73, has been volunteering since childhood, when she helped to fix porches and paint houses for the elderly poor in Philadelphia.

"It made such an impression on me," says Clark, a Quaker who calls her work "spirit driven." Even as a young girl, she realized that volunteering was about "more than helping people; it was about injustice."

Clark, as well, has her own rule of thumb for volunteering. "You can't look at the big picture, she says. "It can immobilize you." Instead, she says volunteers must ask themselves, " 'Have I made a difference for one person?' "

Martha Bishai has plunged into a profusion of volunteer efforts with a strong sense of responsibility. "I felt I should at least do something and not assume someone else will do it."

With four children, and commitments to schools, community, her church's urban witness group and other realms, Bishai's challenge is to acknowledge limits to time and resources. "I sometimes need to put the brakes on," the Ruxton resident says. "I do have more ideas than I can do."

Bishai, an attorney and at-home mother, also struggles with where to draw the "emotional line" between herself and those whom she has assisted -- in particular a Mississippi Delta family she began helping five years ago through an aid program called the Box Project.

With difficulty, Bishai, 46, has come to see that perhaps the most significant help she can offer the family's single mother is friendship. "I can't give her a completely new set of circumstances, but at least I can be with her through some of what she faces on a daily basis," Bishai says. Still, "I don't accept what I can give as being enough."

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