Lukewarm Water Bottles
“Those poor kids are working hard out in this heat! They need water!” said the church member as she spotted one of our groups of youth volunteers working on a roof in the middle of the summer in Memphis, Tennessee.
She was right - those kids were working out in unimaginable heat (we regularly experienced heat indexes over 100 degrees!). And they certainly needed water. We stress the importance of regularly drinking water to all of our staff and volunteers.
So, in response to this perceived need, this well-intentioned and well-resourced individual did what any compassionate person would do: she figured out a way she could help. And not just in a small way. She arranged to have several pallets (!) of bottled water delivered to make sure that our volunteers had plenty of water! That was no easy or cheap task. Cases and cases of bottled water on pallets were literally offloaded from a large truck into the parking lot of one of our volunteer facilities. What an incredibly generous act!
Except, there were just a few small problems...
First of all - the pallets of water bottles were dropped off in the parking lot of a church where we house volunteers for the summer right in the way of one of the main entrances to the daycare of the church. So we had to move them down the stairs to the basement of the church where our volunteers were housed. Not an easy task!
But once we got them down there and told our volunteers about them, no one ever took any of the bottles of water with them to the worksites. Why? Because one of the central items on our “packing list” that we send all of our volunteers is a reusable water bottle. All of our volunteers had shown up for the week with a large reusable water bottle. And each morning it was easier for them to fill their large water bottles with ice water than to grab a smaller, lukewarm bottle from one of the cases of water.
At the end of the summer, we now had another problem. We rented the space in the church basement for the summer. But now that the summer was over, we had to remove everything that was ours - including all of those cases of bottled water. Which meant, we had to haul them all by hand back up the stairs and load them into a vehicle and transport them back to our main facility.
And now, our volunteer home repair summer camps have been over for about a month and we still have stacks and stacks of warm bottled water sitting outside of our main facility because we don’t have a good place to store them inside.
Unfortunately, this kind and compassionate act by an individual, though meant to help, has actually caused more work for us and did not even address the original need. It could have all been avoided if the individual had simply asked us if there was anything we needed or any way she could help.
Too often, those of us in the business of charity observe what we perceive to be a need and seek to respond to that need. This needs-based approach too often undercuts the very people we want to serve. However, there are alternative approaches that not only ensure that real needs are being met, but also empower individuals and communities to truly thrive and overcome obstacles.
I’m excited to dive deeper into this subject in my plenary session at the 8th Annual National ReFrame Conference this November. We will look at how Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is a more helpful alternative to a needs-based approach to helping others and how to incorporate ABCD into volunteer home repair programs. Because nobody likes hauling around cases of lukewarm bottled water!
Philip Walkley is the Executive Director of Service Over Self (SOS), a volunteer home repair and leadership development organization in Memphis, TN. He is also one of our speakers for ReFrame Conference. In addition to his plenary speech, "The ABCDs of Home Repair," he will also lead a break-out session, "Empowering Volunteers for Success: How to Motivate and Equip Home Repair Volunteers for Maximum Impact." Philip is an unashamed choir nerd who exercises almost every morning at 5:30 a.m.