Why I Volunteer

By Larry Pixley

I have been a volunteer at Compass now for over 3 years and hope to continue on for many more years. Why do I keep coming back? Just like on “Cheers, where everyone knows your name,” there is always the big greeting of “Larry” whenever I come into the shop just before the student bus arrives and students come swelling in. Feels good! There are many stories I could tell you that have enriched my Compass experience but allow me to share three stories… one from each year.

In the first year of volunteering I was assigned 2 students, one with autism and the other one a serious neurological disorder. We assigned them the task of final sanding screw holes which had been filled with fairing compound prior to painting. One student was confined to a wheel chair and was so debilitated by his disease that he did not have the strength to either hold a power sander or to sand by hand. Although his partner was perfectly capable of sanding the rough spots on his own, they were told to come up with a plan that kept both of them working while I was “away” for a few minutes. Upon returning we found the first student tooling backwards in his power wheelchair busily feeling all the screw holes with the back of his hand – “I can feel the rough spots, Larry” – and then circling with a pencil those spots for his partner to sand. I was fighting back the tears watching these two students who had been in “special” classes most of their lives working hand and hand and doing their part in building a Compass Boat. It was at that moment that I became “hooked” as a Compass volunteer!

Last year we built a Core Sound 17 sailboat on commission from a very generous Compass supporter. It was quite a challenge for both staff and students, but we managed to get her launched in time. One student never really engaged with the others in building the boat as she had difficulty working with other students. One of our social work interns spent the year with her one-on-one building among other things a set of stairs that would make it easier for her dog to get onto her bed. She always seemed sullen when she came into Compass – never a smile, eyes down-turned, pushing people away verbally. All the students had a chance to sail to boat, but she held back. She was afraid of people making fun of her while getting into the boat and afraid that the boat would tip over as soon as it left the dock. With much cajoling, her favorite teacher and I managed to talk her into giving it a try. Once out on the water I asked her if she would mind holding the “rope” (the main sheet) for me while I tied my shoes. After a few minutes of sailing she was given the tiller to hang onto with the other hand for “just a minute.” After a few more minutes, her teacher looked at her and proudly told her that she was sailing the boat. This is the only time I had ever seen her smile the whole year and luckily another volunteer in the chase boat managed to capture it on camera! It’s one of the pictures I now use on as wallpaper on my cell phone to remind me of why I keep coming back!

My final story is of a 17 year old student with whom I worked on the Core Sound 17 last year. He has been “on the streets” from time to time over the past 5 years. Because of sporadic attendance he only has enough credits to be called a sophomore. He struggles to stay in school and to stay out of trouble, often making poor choices in friends. Sometimes he comes into Compass barely able to stay awake from lack of sleep, and he is frequently hungry. There is no one at “home” that he can depend on for the basics.

We all held our breath this year to see if he would be back in school and coming to Compass. He is here and now as an “experienced hand.” He takes pride in being able to take some of the boat building skills that he learned last year and applying them to a much more difficult project. For the first time in the year and half he has been with us he is starting to talk about going on to PATHS and learning how to work with diesel engines. And he is looking forward to paddling the new canoe in June on our planned Presumpscott River trip and that will mean he has had made it through one more year in school and one more year at Compass.

There are many wonderful people who are working with these “at risk” youth trying to make a difference with students who have not always had the easiest of beginnings. The tremendously dedicated teachers who work with them day in and day out are the real unsung heroes. Our own Compass Staff, Shane and Wendy, work tirelessly planning projects, finding people who are willing to give us supplies and tools, and teaching the volunteers.

You don’t need boat building skills, or even carpentry skills to be a volunteer at Compass. The staff is there to guide you through the boat building process. You only need an eagerness and willingness to be of service to young people who are struggling to make sense of the world.

One of the teachers wrote this to us last year. “I believe that the relationships between volunteers and students are a key, if not the key, factor in creating a meaningful, empowering experience for this group of hard-to-engage students.

You will always leave the shop with a “Thank you” from the teachers and staff and sometimes even a smile from one of the students looking back at you as they go out the door waving. Come and join us!

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