Volunteering For Rejection

I am good with children. And I’m not just saying that — there’s real evidence. I ran a summer camp for little kids when I was fifteen. I tutored 12-year-olds at my synagogue for seven years, and once I overheard one of them in the hall saying to her friend, “Kate is the coolest teacher. You’ll see, when you get her next year.” I felt like I’d just won a gold medal for being awesome at life. Or, you know, teaching.

I like kids. I want to have them one day. I feel strangely confident when I think about being a mother. More confident than I feel when I’m faced with something like weird colored water coming out of the shower or the question of which recycling bin to put the egg carton in. Raising an entire child? Bring it.

But something just happened to me that has shaken my confidence and tested my faith. Big Brothers Big Sisters rejected me.

I am apparently unfit to spend time with an inner-city girl who needs a mentor. Because I am not mentor material. I don’t know why, and I’m afraid of the answer:  I might also have a problem with bad breath. Psychotic tendencies.  A depressingly dour countenance. The potential to launch into passionate diatribes about how “the liberals are running this country into the ground—look at all the immigrants we have here now.” I can’t tell you because I don’t know myself anymore.  BBBS has shredded my self-image.

I was thrilled, at the information session. This is right, I thought. I am supposed to be doing this. I’ve been so selfish, writing all day long, sitting at my computer while this big, tumultuous city rushes by outside my window. (Well, technically, outside my window is a brick wall. But beyond that wall…) It was the first time in a long time I felt like I was doing something for all the right reasons.

I felt like I was waking up out of a career-obsessed haze. I suddenly wanted to make an impact — a real one. To have someone make an impact on me. To show a little girl the parts of the city that I loved but didn’t have time to go to anymore, because I was too busy getting ahead. I wanted to slow down. I wanted to learn this girl’s story — whoever she might be — I wanted to get to know her. I wanted to share with her my love of words, because maybe that girl would like to write, too. I wanted to listen. TO LISTEN! Is that not the height of maturity? I had lots of very sound reasons for wanting to be a Big Sister, and I went in feeling good.

I did an hour-long interview with a social worker. He asked me about my sex life. Had I ever had sex I didn’t want to have? I answered him honestly. We talked about my family (“Oh, my brothers! We’re so close! They’re some of my best friends! Of course, we have our little fights — Jake’s stubborn, and I’m stubborn, and Gabe’s in a frat now, which is hard for me to understand, because I always thought frats were creepy, but it works for him, so I support him in that… But they’re hilarious!”), and about my expectations. We talked about religion, about what I thought kids needed. I felt like I was acing it. I talked about kids needing attention, real persistent attention. He asked me to describe myself in a few words. I stumbled briefly, but I picked “sensitive,” as one of them, which is accurate, and also, I thought, good for mentorship, right? I shared my concerns with him — what if I wasn’t what the girl had hoped for? He asked me how I’d react if she talked about smoking pot, having sex, getting raped, being bullied. I tried to think each scenario out carefully before I answered. I would listen. I would be there for her. I would report instances of abuse to the caseworker overseeing our relationship. I would try to get her the help she needed.

I filled out form after form. They fingerprinted me. My rabbi wrote a recommendation. And my husband, and one of my friends. They had to fill out a lot of paperwork, too. My rabbi said, “I’m so glad you’re doing this. This is really the right thing to do. I think it’ll be an amazing experience.”

And then there was the mandatory workshop, where we went over scenarios again. I participated a lot.

I came home buzzing with excitement.

And then I waited.

And waited.

And began to worry, a little. Maybe it was just taking a long time to process all of my information.

And then, yesterday, there were two pieces of mail for me. A jury summons from Brooklyn’s supreme court, and a thin envelope from Big Brothers Big Sisters. My husband grabbed it and ripped it open.

“Read it!” I said, in an excited voice, but my stomach knotted. We all know what a thin envelope means.

“Oh, honey,” he said, his face falling. “I’m so sorry.” He looked up at me, stricken, the letter stuck in his hands. We stood there, on either side of the kitchen counter, awkward, my failure in between us.

The letter began, “Dear Kate, It is with regret that I have to inform you that your application to become a volunteer Big has been declined.”

I didn’t know that volunteers could be rejected. I felt like a drug-dealer. I felt like the college I thought I’d get into had rejected me. I wondered if the FBI had uncovered something incriminating in my records. If someone had stolen my identity briefly. If I have committed horrifying crimes in my sleep.

If so, the world was safe that night. I lay awake in bed, trying to figure out what I’d done wrong. I’m too nerdy. They want mentors who are more outgoing, to inspire the kids. I said that stuff about how well my family gets along. He thought I was lying! He thinks no one is really good friends with their brothers! I don’t understand strife! I have no perspective! My life is too easy! I answered that question wrong! They asked what I’d do if the girl wanted rollerblades, had always wanted them, and couldn’t afford them. I said we could rent them and then later I might buy her a pair. WRONG! NEVER BUY THE KID GIFTS! I was supposed to tell her to save her money for them. That was it. That is why I’m not fit to spend time with the underprivileged children of this city.

I wanted to write to the program director, and ask why. I wanted to say, “But I would have been great! Why didn’t you give me a chance?” And then maybe beg a little. But the letter said, “In accordance with long-standing agency policy, BBBS of NYC does not supply reasons why a decision is made.”

I stared at the letter. It had a long, long list of “officers” and “trustees” running down the left side of the paper. So many people who got to be involved in the noble work of helping children succeed.  I will not be among them.

I am not allowed to volunteer.

So instead of looking for another program or heading over to the nearest soup kitchen, I’ve returned to my selfish little life. I write, and I write, and occasionally I glance up at the brick wall outside the window. And then, just today, I read a brief piece by Michael Musto in a Village Voice blog. He wrote about getting rejected from BBBS. Suddenly, I felt better.

I threw out the rejection letter.

“The power to change lives” reads the subtitle, on the letterhead. Clearly, I will have to find some other power. Like, master recycler. Or grilled-cheese maker extraordinaire (it’s true). Or maybe just “good with words.” TC mark

image – Shutterstock

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=559945600 Kim Dewe

    fuck em.

  • Julia H.

    Not that I’ve ever applied for Big Brothers, Big Sisters – but, I’m a prospective teacher myself, looking for jobs in the Boston Public Schools. While I have a solid cover letter and resume, I have not managed to get a single interview. This is curious, especially since I’ve gotten a bunch of interviews outside the city.

    My hypothesis is this:  BPS – and, perhaps, BBBS – is looking for someone the kids can look up to – and RELATE to. In other words, they might be looking for someone of color who can be a positive role model or example of success. Unfortunately, white women are probably a dime a dozen for jobs and volunteer positions like this. We’re probably more likely to get rejected, I think.

    Otherwise, if working with kids truly is your calling – this should be a disappointment, not a conclusion to your passion.

  • Lee Andrews

    freed up for jury duty! 

  • Sophia

    damn, you sound like my clone. This freaks me out a little – you sound perfect for this, and it’s something that I, too, have always wanted to do. Try to find some silver lining – maybe you somehow dodged a bullet?

  • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

    Really interesting article and I’ve a lot of thoughts about it. I don’t doubt there’s a racial component to your rejection but I wouldn’t believe it was exclusively about that as you almost imply. The motivations you outlined for applying were legitimate ones, but ultimately ones that were self-seeking. Most thoughtful people have the wave of guilt over not contributing to life at large and want a way to help. You sought out the way that best used your talent, which is with kids. Which made sense. Missing though, and it might have been detectible by your social worker, was a desire to really make enhancing that child’s life the highest priority. I think that organizations like Big Brother Big Sister field so many applications of people having a crisis of conscious, but once that fades, they’ll be inclined to make it less of a commitment. Which is fine if this was just a matter of not donating to a charity anymore or not picking up trash. But with a young life involved, the consequences of bailing would be significant. So organizations have to be wary of that. That’s just my hypothesis. I’m sure you’ll find another opportunity so don’t lose hope!

  • Hry

    You can’t take every blow life throws at you personally, even if it was something you thought you deserved, or even was so integral to your plans for your future that you’d spent so much time thinking about it that it was almost like you’d already achieved it. Get up, dust down, move on.

  • guest

    If you really care about working with kids, there are plenty of other mentoring programs out there. Just because one program didn’t think you were their perfect fit doesn’t mean you are consigned to staring at your brick wall feeling misunderstood and sorry for yourself.

  • April

    The same thing just happened to me, with a program I really wanted to get into. Four months later, I’m still reeling from the rejection. I was trying to do the right thing and make the world a better place. It’s all very confusing!

  • cheeseplatter

    I know how you feel, totally! They rejected me because they assumed I had other leadership roles that I would take instead. Ugh

  • its ok

    meh… it’s not a big deal. that’s just one person’s opinion of you, and you can either take it personally and mope, or try again to do something constructive. when i get rejected (which is often…eff) i figure it’s better to be working/volunteering somewhere else where the job is as much a fit for me, as it I am for the job, if that makes any sense.

  • http://twitter.com/alisonwisneski alisonwisneski

    eh. I work with orgs like this, and it’s probably not you…BBBS and the B&GC are always the first ones gone to – look in your neighborhood for more organizations that need help that aren’t that big. Seriously. Smaller nonprofits need more help than you know!

  • Renee

    I almost cried during my interview. She asked, “have you or anyone you know ever experienced sexual violence, rape, or assault?” I said, “yes, my mother, my best friend, and …myself.” And she asked me when and if I’d received counseling since (no), and wrote down so many things and I sat in silence, trying not to cry and then I broke the silence, “Does that disqualify me as a candidate?” She stopped writing and looked up at me and told me that it doesn’t and I seemed recovered–that they only wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be too difficult for me personally if the little was to reveal sexual abuse. I was really grateful that I wasn’t going to be punished for my honesty.

    I was accepted and eventually assigned a little and it was a good experience. I would say that I’m sorry you weren’t accepted, but don’t think it was something like that.

  • Guest

    I was at an interview of something similar. I was at the final round, filled with hopes, already excited of the days ahead where i would be doing something i saw worth in, assisting more people in making their life-changing choices. I was rejected. I don’t know if it’s because i was already with another organisation doing volunteer work or was it because they found me to soft-spoken (i was sick and honestly, i had a draining week). Until now, it bugs me so much not to know why i wasn’t accepted. I honestly don’t understand. I felt a bout of lousiness, in fact until now, i still feel it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so lousy in my life. 

  • http://www.eatthedamncake.com/2012/06/26/getting-rejected-from-volunteering-seriously-its-a-thing/ Eat the Damn Cake » getting rejected from volunteering. (seriously. it’s a thing)

    […] piece appeared originally in Thought Catalog, but I wanted to share it here in full, because I told you guys I was going to apply, and I was all […]

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