Losing control of your story

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Every year, we start a new team, and like them, we are full of good intentions. There is a need to be met among stuggling students who need another caring adult in their lives. There are inspired and generous adults who have applied to join the Project CHANGE team and are signed on. The story is meant to go from there, onward and upward, to the “Happy ever after” ending.

But then, life happens. Someone gets sick. Someone realizes that the 40 minute commute in peak hour traffic every morning is just too much. Someone has a family emergency and has to pivot to meet an unexpected need. Most of the time, the program can adjust. We can make best allowances to ensure a win-win, because we need our members to feel confident in their role. They too have real needs that they must attend to, if they are to be able to serve the needs of the students. But keeping the balance can be complex at times.

When the program feels that the member’s time and energy has somehow been diverted, or they are not showing up for the students they pledged to serve, then one has to start a conversation about what is happening.

One might think it could be a disciplinary hearing, a wrap on the knuckles, a warning, but it should not have to come to that. Smething more important than discipline or commitment needs to be faced. Has the member’s own needs become more their priority, for whatver reason? And is that state of play likely to continue for a significant part of the service year? If so, then the program will advise the member to take time out and sort their own needs out. We do not want them to try and stretch between what they need to do for themslves and what they promise to be for the students. That is a situation that is a short trip to burnout. Plus, it is unfair on students who need to count on those who profess to be their champions. To promise and not show up is worse than not promising at all.

To serve for a year on Project CHANGE, you have to be someone whose life is stable enough and predictable enough to be assured you are able to meet your own needs, and you are not constantly struggling. That way, you are in the best situation to serve your students. Even more important, you are not relying on them to meet your needs. You are able to withstand their crises, and their adolescent judgments, even of you at times.

If a mid schooler says he does not like you, that is not going to send your self esteem into a nose dive. You know yourself. You know the kids you are dealing with. You expect their moods, their tantrums at times, their being unresponsive or unmotivated. You have your own support team, in friends and family and the AmeriCorps team, to bounce back from a hard day at work.

But when your own life is not working out, it becomes doubly hard to serve students whose own lives might also not be working out. One thinks of a football game when a player suffers a bad concussion. The coach is not going to allow him to go back to the field, even though the player assures the staff he is alright. The same applies to the life of service. It is vital we respect our own health and needs, and not play the hero or the martyr. You have needs, like we all do, and you must do them justice.

If life gets in the way of us showing up, we best declare that. If we just disappear from our commitment, we leave our supervisors and team mates guessing. If they feel let down, or if people are relying on you and you prove to be unreliable, you are losing control of your story.

Humans cannot long tolerate gaps in meaning. If something does not seem right, we are apt to make up a reason, regardless of what facts we have to hand. Someone is not at the program again, and we have no word as to why, then we supply the why, and that can go downhill pretty quick. We are going to jump to conclusions about commitment and care. We are going to turn “not showing up” and “not telling anyone” into an explanation about “he is always like that.” or “he doesn’t really care” People soon start to second guess motive and intention. This is not necessarily the fault of those left to cover the absence. They have to do extra duty because their team member is not there. They will feel it is unfair, especially if it is allowed to go on.

The member who does not show and does not tell, is losing control of their story, and feeding a reputation that does not augur well for any future, whether it be employment, or even getting a good reference. Reputation is like gold, and we all have to slowly build it, particularly in new situations. Then we need to protect it. If we are cavalier about it, it sends the wrong signal to the program and to the team. It is then that the directors need to step in and say Enough. Do justice to what you need. Otherwise, everyone loses out, you, the students, the program.

It might mean AmeriCorps is not going to work out. That might be sad, but it could be the best favor your do yourself and save everybody the drama. Or you take a Time Out and get your act together, and restore the balance to a healthy equilibrium.