In a moment of bored, un-inspired self-loathing, I signed up to be a volunteer with the Quad City’s chapter of United Way. Specifically, to be a Summer Reader to elementary aged kids until the new school year starts this August. Ever since I officially completed my doctorate, I have found myself searching for new meaning. As much as I dreamt about the day that school would be over and I could “have my life back”, now that it is here, I feel lost with regards to a daily sense of purpose.

Reviewing my answers to the Hero On A Mission’s eulogy I wrote earlier this summer (another post is needed to explain this I’m sure but for now, just go with it), I connected my understanding of my own story and how books helped parent me as I was growing up, in addition to the life dream of writing my own book one day, with the opportunity of Reading United Summer and figured, “Well, I suppose this is something I should say yes to.”

I filled out the application and when I came to the very last question, “Are there any lingering questions or comments you would like to share with us?” it hit me that my foreign accent syndrome might cause a problem. The entire point of the program is to assist children not lose their progress throughout the summer months. I read through the study that showed how having an adult read with and to a child for just one summer, kept them on target over 95% as they re-entered school in the Fall. I realized that if I was supposed to help them stay on track, my FAS meant that I would inevitably come across a word that I wouldn’t be able to pronounce correctly.

I almost just clicked out of the application completely; going ahead and saying no on their behalf. But for some unknown to me reason at the time, I decided to just explain my foreign accent syndrome and how it would present in this scenario, giving the program leaders the decision and permission to decline my “help” in light of this complication. I waited to hear back.

A few days later, I received an email from the director assuring me that my foreign accent syndrome wouldn’t be a problem. The need for volunteers was greater than any potential problem that could be caused by my speaking difficulties. By this time, my enthusiasm for the opportunity had waned. I was internally hoping they’d turn me down so that I could feel better about my efforts for “at least trying”. Now, I was on the hook. I filled out the background check. I knew that would go through without a hitch. There were no other natural barriers that I could lean on or will to fall apart at the last minute to get me out of service. Why do our brains do such things???

I signed up for the Thursday afternoon time slot, 2PM-2:30PM at a church in Davenport, right down the street from my dentist’s office. At the time, I remember thinking that since Thursday was the last day of my normal weekly office hours, that that time would be easy to get away from the office and “wind down” the week with. However, on the day I was scheduled to begin, all morning long I began dreading my commitment. The last email communication had offered the program director’s number to call in case of any last minute changes to a volunteer’s schedule. Getting out of this would be as simple as sending a text message to a person I had yet to meet face-to-face…the easiest kind of polite decline there is!

Faster than I anticipated, 1PM came around. I wasn’t swamped with work. There was nothing on my plate that week that I couldn’t afford to put off for an hour total. Still, my brain actively tried to offer me reason after reason…err….excuse after excuse to help me get out of my commitment to this unknown situation I had signed us up for. It is amazing how creative my brain becomes when it doesn’t want to do something or is anticipating something un-pleasurable. Seriously.

Logically, I reasoned that if I cancelled this week, I’d just be putting off the inevitable and that in the end, it wouldn’t actually be any better next Thursday when 1PM rolled around again like it tends to do every seven days. The unknown would still be the unknown, I’d just have seven more days to be mulling it over. Sure, I could cancel next week too, but then what? Was I the type of person who signs up for something and then just keeps cancelling because I never actually wanted to do it in the first place? Even if I got the absolute worst kid in the entire Quad Cities, could I really not handle that for 30 minutes a week? After having served in children’s ministry for eleven years, did I really not have ANY tools for managing a difficult child for thirty minutes?  No, no and no.

I came to a stopping point on whatever it was I was doing in the office, gathered my things and hopped in the truck to drive over to the church. I pulled up and went inside. I found the classroom where I was supposed to go and the look on my face must have shown my momentary “I’m new here” status as the teacher asked, “Are you here for the reading program?” Relieved, I nodded my head and stammered out my name. She smiled and said, “Oh, you are partnered with Auden. Let me get her.”

The teacher was warm and walked over to the classroom door, gently calling out, “Auden!”

I heard a small girl’s voice reply raptly, “What?”

“Your reading buddy is here!”

“I don’t want to read.”

Oh great, I thought, I’m assigned to a kid who has no interest in reading!

“You don’t?!” her teacher said in feigned surprise. “Well, your reading buddy is here and she wants to meet you. She’ll be so sad if you don’t read with her today. Would you like to come and pick out a book?”

Unable to yet see Auden, I heard the sound of movement and motion in the classroom as a three-foot blonde girl came to the door, looked up at me and grinned. Her facial features and body makeup couldn’t hide the fact that Auden has down-syndrome. My heart melted.

Auden picked out a book I had never read, “If I Built A Car” and we went to the lobby of the church to sit on one of the overstuffed comfy couches to read. Immediately comfortable with a stranger, Auden invited me into her world. She sad close to me and when I asked her if she had read this book before, she shook her head no. I proceeded to ask her if she’d like to read the book to me or if she’d like me to read it to her? She answered confidently, “You read it to me!”

I had been prepared for being more of a reading coach…helping a child sound out words, praising them for their efforts and perseverance, perhaps even a child who wasn’t too thrilled to read during their summer break. I was not prepared for a child who enthusiastically read and enjoyed being read to! My training had equipped us with different tips and tools to help engage children’s reading, vocabulary and comprehension. I asked Auden to describe what was happening on the cover of the book and who she thought everyone was. If I Built A Car is a story about a boy named Jack who dreams up a fantasy car with all kinds of accoutrements and accessories (like a fireplace, couch and swimming pool). As I continued to read and engage Auden with questions, Auden began to mimic the words that I was reading aloud. At the last word of each sentence, she would repeat me and state the word loudly; her way of reading alongside me. What a brilliant child. Her participation made me smile. I had been perfectly paired.

As we finished the book, Auden took it from my hands and said, “Okay, now I read it to you!”

“Okay!” I said enthusiastically.

Auden began to string along words and phrases and even some gibberish as she intently “read” the words on each page, giggled, inferred tone and inflected questions. She reminded me of my early years when I so longed to actually read a book to myself but was yet incapable of doing so.

Auden closed the book and exclaimed, “Hey! Let me sing you a song on the piano!” (The church had a piano just beside the grouping of couches.) I wasn’t sure if she was allowed to touch or play it, but not seeing any signs against it, I sat on the bench alongside her at her request. She hammered away on the keys nonsensically and began singing, “A B C D E F G”; the melody of the keys not matching the song she was singing. Still, she came to the end of the song and looked at me with the biggest smile of accomplishment. I exclaimed my praise, “Auden you sure DO know your ABC’s!” She clapped her hands and then commanded, “Okay, now YOU sing the ABCs!” top which I promptly replied, “Oh, I don’t know them as well as you do! I always mess them up!” Auden insisted, “Nooooo, you DO know them! Just try!  I will play the song and you sing!” I began to sing, “Z, Y, X, W, V, U, T….wait….that’s not right!” Auden giggled and gave me a look of complete disbelief and concern. I laughed out loud and acknowledged my silliness.

When it was time to head back to class, Auden expressed her desire to continue playing the piano and sing songs instead. It took some coaxing, but she eventually followed me back down the hallway to her classroom, greeted once again by her teacher who had once coaxed her out of class in the first place to come and read. Even though it had been stated in training, I asked the teacher, “I’ll be partnered with Auden next week too, right?” She confirmed this element of the program.

I said a quick goodbye and see you next week to Auden and walked back through the church lobby with both a feeling of holiness and honor upon me. What a joy and honor it is to be entrusted with another one of God’s daughters, Auden. Even more so, because of Auden’s diagnosis, her inherent vulnerability isn’t lost on me. It is a privilege to be a trusted adult in her life that will not take advantage of her or harm her even in the face of her immediate trust of me. I got back in my truck and wondered about Auden’s parents and about her background. Do her parents have the resources they need? Are they in a supportive community? Do they hear enough positives about Auden from other grown-ups? Additionally, I found myself thinking, “Oh, I can’t wait until next Thursday!”

Now that I’m on the other side of my anxiety and fear of the unknowns, I am so thankful that I didn’t cancel. To think of all of the joy and light I would have missed out on had I not showed up that afternoon! I wonder what all Auden is going to teach me in the next ten weeks. I wonder what all I will learn and how I will grow from this experience. From someone who is constantly recruiting others to serve with children, I often tout the logical reasons….we need you, you make a difference in the kids lives, kids need grown ups who care about them, etc. etc. What I have most often forgotten and neglect to say is how the kids in fact are the ones who change YOU, the grown-up and what an honor it is to play such a small role in their lives.

It is way too easy to talk yourself out of volunteering. Far, far too easy in fact.

Are you wondering about your sense of purpose? Has the monotony of the every-day made you wonder, “Is this it, God? Was going to work, getting the kids to school, coming home to cook a meal and watch TV or endlessly scroll on social media all that I was made for?” Let me assure you, the answer to that is a resounding no! However, let me also assure you that a meaningful life or existential driving purpose will not simply fall into your lap while you’re on the couch mindlessly perusing the internet or watching TikTok videos. No, purpose comes from making intentional choices to be different, to live with a mission that influences your actions rather than simply allowing life to happen or unfold before you as if you are its victim of fate, and to navigate the inevitable brain-dump of “what-ifs” attempting to talk you out of stepping outside of your comfort zone because “you’ve never done this before and it might be miserable”!

You know what’s more miserable than doing something you’ve never done before?

Not doing anything but what you’ve always done.

***If you would like to volunteer as a Summer Reader in the Quad Cities, check out their website for their Read United Summer program and many other local volunteer opportunities. https://www.unitedwayqc.org/