Tom Novak, BBA, MBA,
Career & Education Development Coordinator
Volunteerism…a Transformative Experience
May 2018, Plainfield, Vermont
“I was excited to meet new people.” Andrew, age 18, looked forward to his first volunteer opportunity in the community. He wanted to expand his social world beyond the treatment milieu at Spruce Mountain Inn. Andrew decided to work at Twin Valley Senior Center. He was tasked with serving lunch and socializing with the senior citizens who come to the Center during the day.
Volunteerism is a vital part of the comprehensive treatment at Spruce. After residents progress through their assessment phase of treatment, they are placed in a volunteer position in the community. Tom Novak, MBA, our Career and Education Development Coordinator, meets with residents to match them with the best fit based on their treatment needs, personality, values, and interests. Tom has developed over 50 volunteer placements in Central Vermont ranging from working at the local radio station, to interning at the Governor’s office to assisting at a therapeutic riding center.
“Volunteering gets them out their heads for a bit,” according to Tom. “It helps the residents re-engage in the community after they’ve been isolating themselves and their world has become very small.” Many of Spruce’s clients have not been able to manage the school or work environments prior to treatment, but with the support of their clinical team, they can work through the emotional difficulties that arise in their volunteer work experiences.
After Andrew’s initial excitement about helping at the Twin Valley Senior Center, he became unsure if he could stick it out. “At first, it was miserable. I worried about wasting their time.” Andrew wanted to be helpful but was unsure how to interact with new people outside of a treatment program. He spoke with Tom about changing placements, feeling ill equipped for the Senior Center. Tom encouraged him to stay at the Senior Center and work through the challenges. For many of the residents, they hadn’t managed more than a few days on a job before their treatment at Spruce. Tom helps the residents problem solve how to manage stress, social interactions, and fears as they arise in the volunteer placements.
Andrew listened to Tom’s counsel and continued to show up at the Senior Center and eventually became integrated into the community. He attributes the shift to a particularly busy couple of weeks when the kitchen staff asked him to do more chores for them. This gave Andrew more direction on how to spend his time at the Senior Center. He began taking on more tasks for the kitchen staff. One day, Andrew realized that a group of seniors were waiting for him to finish up to start a card game. Another time, the Director approached Andrew about helping a senior take down Christmas decorations because her driveway was too slippery from the icy February conditions. Andrew realized, “they do need me.” He felt valued and started to find more meaning in his volunteer placement.
On reflection, Andrew said that his volunteer experience “gave him an idea of how he would manage other new situations in the community like going to a college class or getting a job.” He realized that feeling comfortable in new situations takes time. Andrew can rely on his volunteer experience as a reference for managing difficult emotions in novel experiences without quitting. Andrew is now in his final phase of treatment at Spruce. After a job search that included multiple job offers, he accepted a part time position and plans to take two college classes. Both will trigger feelings of uncertainty, but he will be able to take comfort in the fact that he worked through those feelings before and managed them successfully.