I didn’t “get” volunteering. Throughout my childhood, I accompanied my father to neighbors’ homes as he freely gave of his medical degree to stitch wounds or look at painful ears. I saw my mother give countless hours to our schools. Yet, when I went to high school, I didn’t feel very enthusiastic when I participated in volunteering. What was wrong with me? I came from a family of “givers” yet I was going through the motions to give back rather than doing so with the genuine enthusiasm that my family seemed to have. Then, it hit me. Unlike my family, I didn’t have any tangible connection to the people I was helping. The only way I could truly understand giving was to connect to those I was giving to.

My friends and I made cookies to bring and serve at a homeless shelter. The night we went to the shelter, my realization concerning giving came to life.

We arrived at the shelter, each of us carrying a huge platter of cookies. As we confidently approached and entered the shelter, our joking banter came to an abrupt hush. Our confidence quickly dissolved and our smiling, carefree faces changed as we turned into timid, wide-eyed teenagers. We looked and felt out of place as we weren’t sure how to act or proceed. The men seemed huge, rough and some were acting erratically. Others just appeared “damaged.” We froze. We stood there, silent. One by one, at least half of my friends came to me and said that they would have to leave early. Then, the men started to interact with us. Some just made eye contact, smiled and walked by. Many exclaimed at the sight of the cookies and thanked us, saying things like, “Homemade cookies? Bless you kids!” Many broke into song with beautiful, deep, rich voices, joked with us and told us we were good kids. One man in particular gently put his hand on each of our shoulders, one at a time, looked into our eyes and asked us (from somewhere sad and deep within) to promise him that we would do well in school and make good choices. The men transformed from scary, to simply warm, appreciative, kind people we were sharing cookies with. Then, we transformed.

We relaxed, smiled back and joked with them as we felt the great, peaceful sense of pride and satisfaction that the men gave to us in exchange for our cookies. We saw that we were making them happy! Every friend who said they had to leave early suddenly could stay the entire night. We all understood what we gave to that shelter that night as well as what it gave back to us. I saw, firsthand what makes “Volunteering? Ugh!” turn into “Volunteering? Yes!”

Maxwell Shane Frankel is a graduate of Northwest High School and lives in Darnestown.