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Paying forward; paying back

Food for Thought

Not long ago, anchorwoman Diane Sawyer described a program in a small southern town where people of all ages can “pay forward” with three hours of their services and later receive three hours of free help from someone else. This sounds like a sort of barter system similar to one that operated in the Iowa City area 15 or 20-some years ago. The Iowa City system, called a trade exchange, had the advantage of considering the monetary value of the services and these could be traded for goods as well as services, which seems more equitable than trading three hours of babysitting for, say, three hours of dentistry. Granted, this was a news item on network television, so there wasn’t a lot of time devoted to it, and I’m sure the story couldn’t go into detail about how such things were being worked out in that town.
I guess every time someone puts a new twist on an old concept, it attracts more attention, and even though it may be a new idea for some people, it still boils down to trading something you have for something you want, be it housework, a television set, cowrie shells, or money. For a long time, most of us have thought of it as simply doing volunteer work, whether we do it individually and person-to-person, within the framework of an organization, or by donating or raising funds for things that we can’t actually provide ourselves.
I’ve always considered that the volunteering I have been able to do was paying back for all the things that others have done for me in the past. Those room mothers at school who took the time to bake cookies for my children and the rest of the class for Valentine’s Day, for instance. The Cub Scout den mothers who kept my sons busy learning skills and doing interesting things with a bunch of their friends, the garden club people who planted and tended the flowers at the park and the library, and many other things that benefit and delight us all.
For about 25 years, I helped with the Picture Presenter Program we started at Lakeview School. Not only was it a pleasure for me to combine kids and art– two of my favorite things– but it gave me the opportunity to do a bit of teaching, one reason I had gone to college and had missed out on by being a stay-at-home mom instead. Other school volunteers helped out with the music programs, athletics, drama department, field trips, all things that benefited my children, so I was glad to feel I was paying back by doing something for the children of others.
I no longer have very close ties with the school system, but I have fond memories of the teachers and children I came in contact with. Today, I frequently encounter an adult who tells me that they remember me well from the days I came to school and talked to them about art. When we started the program, we intended to include grades one through six. Patterned after a program in Glen Ellyn, Ill., it involved a volunteer going into a classroom once a month, showing the children a large, nicely framed reproduction of a famous work of art, and talking for about 20 minutes about the art and the artist. We expanded this to include several sculpture reproductions as well. Then, the kindergarten teachers asked if we could somehow include their students. I remembered a collection of framed postcard-size art prints that kids could check out of the Iowa City library years ago, and started collecting and framing similar ones until I had enough to start such a program at Lakeview.
I had figured out that, if you wanted to talk to children about art, and if you wanted them to be able to express what they felt about art, they needed the correct vocabulary. I started with the basics. What is a portrait, a landscape, a still life? We looked at examples of realistic art and abstract art and learned the right words to describe them. We talked about the different ways that artists help us learn about things– showing us what places, people, animals, etc. look like; pictures that tell stories that can be mythical, historical, moralistic. The kindergarten program was entirely experimental and very popular with the students, teachers and parents. It was definitely the most fun and the most satisfying for me. I regretted the day we had to give up the program for lack of volunteers.
I belong to a couple of organizations now that include writers, artists and other creative people. I do as much volunteer work for them as I can because I enjoy the meetings and want to help the organizations thrive. I firmly believe that, if you join an organization, you should get right in there and help it succeed. I’ve little patience with those who merely attend the meetings and programs and enjoy what others are doing for them, but who put forth little or no effort themselves.