Volunteerism doesn’t translate between cultures

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Our family hosted an exchange student from Russia one school year when our son was a student at Sheridan High. We were enthralled to see what an adventure the year would bring.

Rauf Muzaffarov came to us from a former communist culture with his genealogy rooted in Eastern European history.

We plugged Muzaffarov right in the Bell family American lifestyle. He went to school at Sheridan High. Each new experience for him opened an opportunity for us to learn something from him. In time, Muzaffarov began to share the insights of a 17-year-old on differences and similarities between his homeland of Russia and American culture.
When we discussed volunteering, Rauf had a most negative reaction. He shared that volunteering doesn’t have the same positive connotation in Russia.

Why was that? we asked.

“The government would tell you when you were volunteering,” Rauf shared.

Really? We took a moment to think about that. I wondered how one was notified that they “were volunteered.” Did soldiers come door-to-door to gather volunteers? The image of sailors being pressed into service in the past from competing navies came to mind. Was it like that?

We explained to him that volunteering in America was an individual choice. Individuals chose if they volunteered and to what cause they volunteered.

“It’s still the same,” Muzaffarov said. “You work without getting paid, right?”
Yes, we responded.

“Then, why do you do it?” he asked.

It makes us feel good, we responded.

“I can do other things that make me feel good,” he said. “Maybe even better.” Muzaffarov laughed.
He had a point.

Why would anyone want to volunteer when there are other things that may be more pleasurable? I suppose I could throw out a partial list to which anyone could add their own insights.

A friend commented that, “If you live in Sheridan, you’re expected to give back.”

I don’t know if “expected” is the operative word for everyone, but I do recognize that Sheridan County is unique in how folks living here do come out of their homes, roll up their sleeves and chip in for a collective good.

From Clearmont to Story, from Big Horn to Parkman, and all the communities that make Sheridan County uniquely the giving community that it is, there are stories, events, activities and news about how people are volunteering. They are volunteering not because a government agency told them they had to: they volunteer because they see for themselves how much richer and better our community is because we, as residents, give of our time — without pay — to make this community better for everyone.
During his stay with us Muzaffarov volunteered.He learned to build interior door frames on a Habitat House. He served hot dogs from a concession stand at Babe Ruth baseball games on the VA campus. He picked up trash along Interstate 90 along with other unpaid but self-directed volunteers. He rang bells during the Christmas season for the Salvation Army.

He is what you’d call “a good egg.” I’d like to think that he was intrigued how individuals — of their own volition — would want to volunteer to work without pay to give back to their community. We never mandated that Muzaffarov had to volunteer; instead, we invited him to see this side of life in America. He always had a choice to stay home to do something that may have given him greater pleasure. But he didn’t stay home. He jumped in, rolled up his sleeves and pitched in as an Americanized volunteer. He was “a good egg.”
The year with Muzaffarov ended quickly. He returned home to Russia and emailed us that he arrived safely. We weren’t so sure about his thoughts on volunteerism really were or if it would “stick” with him. But rumor is that he was organizing a group of volunteers in his home community. We want to believe it is true.

Lois Bell is a staff member at the Sheridan Senior Center. Center Stage is written by friends of the Senior Center for the Sheridan Community. It is a collection of insights and stories related to living well at every age.

By |April 19th, 2013|

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