Blogs >> Serving the Village - Reflections on being a volunteer

Serving the Village - Reflections on being a volunteer

Schumacher College sustainable education and Sustainability Masters

By Stephen J Adamson

As I sit down to write this short piece, I am approaching the end of week four of a nine week stint as a volunteer at the College. In some ways, the experience has been pretty much what I expected; and in many other ways it has been more interesting, more fun, and more challenging than I'd anticipated.

Having been a Schumacher short course participant five times between Spring 2012 and Spring 2014 (spending a total of seven weeks at the College) I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I knew, for example, that I'd be among like-minded folk, in a place where I would not need to explain my values. I also knew that I would feel welcome; would have a strong sense of being held by the community; and would be extraordinarily well-fed ! I also knew that I would have the opportunity - often many times in the same day - to engage in a fascinating discussion with someone about something, be it deep ecology, economics, sustainability or a plethora of other important subjects.

In respect of all of the above, I have not been disappointed.

During my time here, we've also been blessed with the opportunity to engage with various visitors and guest speakers including, for example, Drew Dellinger. What a great speaker and poet. I found myself utterly captivated by what he had to say to us two Mondays ago about Thomas Berry and Martin Luther King; about ecology and cosmology; and about social and ecological justice. (p.s. if you're reading this and you don't know who Drew is, check out You Tube and search for Hieroglyphic Stairway. Amazing...). There has also, of course, been a lot of music, a lot of laughter, and a lot of pure silliness - all of which are very much part of College life too. And, oh my goodness, we have been so blessed with the weather. I'm very much of the school of thought that says: there's no such thing as 'bad' weather, only inappropriate clothing - but what a joy it has been to eat outdoors every single day. I even had breakfast in the courtyard one day before 7:00am last week, just because I could - listening to the birds singing their morning chorus of invitation to another glorious day. It really doesn't get much better than this (unless you count sitting in the Redwoods at around 6:30am, just as the sun slowly rises and the thick blanket of dew clears from distant fields... Ah... Bliss !).

Since the first time I came to the College, in the Spring of 2012, I have wanted to be a volunteer, and to give back to a place which has somehow gotten under my skin and into my heart. It wasn't until after my fourth short course, however, that I knew it wasn't just something I wanted to do, rather something I felt called to do. This fourth short course was co-facilitated by David Abram and Martin Shaw. It was a fabulous seven days, and prepared me beautifully to go do something I'd wanted to do for a while but hadn't. In a nutshell, a few days after the course I completed a Vision Quest on Dartmoor - four days and nights of solitude and fasting. What a wonderful adventure; an experience which created one of those not-going-back kind of internal shifts. As I learned, one of the most important things about a Quest is that, in order to keep the wisdom we receive alive within us, we must come back down off the mountain and 'serve the village' - that is, give service to our community, whether that is literally the community in our locality, or a movement we are active members of, or more broadly the eairth community of which are all members. Volunteering at Schumacher suddenly had a much deeper resonance for me, and became just one part of a larger pilgrimage I am now committed to.

So what has the volunteer journey been like so far ? Well, I could tell you that it's all been wonderful; an exhilarating intellectual rollercoaster one minute and a blissful retreat from the so-called 'real world' the next; an experience of deep serenity and calm - the stuff of novels. But that wouldn't be an authentic account of things at all. Not that it's all been stressful or difficult. Far from it. The truth, perhaps, is 'all of the above', and more.

In my first week I really didn't know what I was doing - everything was somehow very familiar yet felt entirely new. I am very grateful for the opportunity to serve, and so wanted to make sure I 'earned my keep' so to speak. I threw myself into the various tasks and did the best I could. But what became clear very quickly was that I really had no idea what goes on in the College, all day long, to ensure the smooth running of the place. As a short course participant you are, naturally, focused on the course agenda: much passes you by. So that was bit of a challenge to my assumptions. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into but, in all honesty, I didn't have a clue. I also wasn't sleeping well; felt exhausted with the effort it had taken to pack up the house, put everything in storage, and just get here; and the pre-programmed little voices inside my head kept saying: you must do this; you need to do that; you should do the other..... It was exhausting !

The process of arriving, really arriving, therefore took a while. Eventually, however, somewhere toward the end of the second week, it felt OK to just 'be' - to enjoy sitting in the woods, for example, for the pure joy of sitting. And it also became OK to say no to the ever-present opportunities for stimulating interaction and, instead, to take some personal time to decompress a little. In that second week I also got some really useful advice from one of the other volunteers, who said: "Remember... you haven't just chosen to volunteer; you've chosen to volunteer here, at Schumacher, and you must pace yourself so that you enjoy the whole experience". How right he was ! And so the second week unfolded to an easier, more enjoyable rhythm.

And the following week ? Well, I think the real turning point was on the Thursday, just as I was approaching the end of week three. I was working behind the bar, and having a lot of fun chatting with the short course participants. Several of them said, quite unprompted, how I seemed to change into a different person behind the bar - becoming a 'cheeky chappy', clearly happy, and with a glint in my eye (not at all the quieter, more serious person they'd seen for much of the time prior to that). I think they were right. It really did take me nearly three weeks to feel completely at home, to relax fully and to settle in. What a relief !

Now, as I approach the end of my fourth week, I've definitely found my stride. My energy levels are up; I'm no longer feeling the need to retreat on occasions from the merriment and conversation; and I'm enjoying all the joking, the banter and the silliness ! And today, I even crossed that scary threshold at the Morning Meeting at which I shared some of my poetry - which is, however you look at it, a hugely symbolic moment of vulnerability in which we not only share our creativity but, in some essential way, say: here you go, have a bit of the real me. And it felt good to do that :-)

Oh, and so far as the work tasks are concerned..... Well, I now know what I'm doing (at least most of the time), and it's actually a joy to spend hours each day washing up and cleaning. Honestly !

So, what do I conclude, four weeks in to the volunteer journey ? Well, I'd like to leave you with a poem. Make of it what you will.....

May you go well.....



The Guest House



This being is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all !

Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of it's furniture,

still, treat each guest honourably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.