Help Wanted

After getting fired from my job, I tried more than a dozen others as a volunteer—and found out that Indy is the best place to be when you need a little lift.
Illustration by Robert Neubeker

WHILE EVERYONE was quiet-quitting last year, I got old-fashioned fired. The blindsided kind of fired. “Letting you go,” my boss at the marketing company insisted on saying. I’d only had the job for nine months. I came to it after 25 years in magazine journalism, which had left me broke and burnt out. I’d needed a change. At the very least, I needed a reset at a job that checked the boxes on my midlife wish list: a raise, a flexible schedule, to work from home. If nothing else, an empty inbox. This new opportunity offered all of that. And then, I lost it.

I’m not blameless. I missed deadlines. They mentioned it in my three-month review, and I missed some more. But never by enough to warrant another conversation. Every week, my manager would check my schedule in a workflow management system and cheerfully adjust any deadline as needed. I didn’t know I was committing the company’s cardinal sin. I knew I was struggling, and I was embarrassed by it. Procrastinating on writing is one of my oldest and strongest demons. Still, if every writer got fired for missing deadlines, there would be no writers. And they didn’t fire me over deadlines, officially. They fired me because a client didn’t like my work and asked for the previous writer back. Without that contract, my boss said she couldn’t afford my job. “Clients. What can you do?” she shrugged.

Some people say the hardest part about being fired is the way it makes you question your skills and feel stupid. Not so for me. I didn’t need the company’s validation. The hardest part for me was the energy I spent over the next 24 hours dwelling on it. Making poetic, furious speeches in my head, burning bridges and dancing on the ashes … figuring out how long I could afford to be unemployed—a couple of months. That makes me luckier than many. Between my husband’s income and my freelance work, we wouldn’t have to panic right away. It wouldn’t be easy finding a job at my age, but I believed we would be OK. Somehow.

One sign? I had already scheduled drinks that day with the best person I could have turned to—my friend Cathy. Both journalists turned marketing copywriters, we had been planning to meet up for a year, rescheduling over and over. Two rosés into happy hour at Just Pop In that night, and I was over it. Happy, even. I hadn’t loved the job—I had liked the money, the lifestyle, and a few people. Wise Cathy said that I was still burnt out and couldn’t get excited about something until I fully recuperated. Maybe a couple months of not working at all was Part Two of my reset year.

But I didn’t have to wait a couple months to recuperate. The whole thing had given me the best story idea I’d had in ages. “I’ll volunteer at a different place every day for a month!” I declared. Cathy and I clinked glasses as my brilliant plan started coming together. “Now I have the time to tutor adult literacy students and arrange flowers for sick people,” I added. I couldn’t wait to get started—a foreign feeling. That night before I even went home, I wrote all of what you just read on my phone.

Illustrations by Robert Neubecker

Starting Fresh

In addition to being a world-class procrastinator, I am a dabbler. The idea of trying 20 new things, some of which had been on my to-do list for years, excited me. This was also a way of giving back. In the wake of being fired, friends had shown me more generosity than I needed, and I had to pay it forward somehow. Getting a story out of it would be a bonus.

I should have been terrified, though. I’d never been without a job. There was always the stability of an employer. A paycheck. A tomorrow, a next year, a future. I’d always managed to find fun jobs, and I had career vanity. I felt it was the coolest thing about me. Not that I was above grunt work. Technically, my first job was when I was 4 or 5 years old, working on my family’s pickle farm. It sounds like what parents might call “chores” rather than employment, but I had a title—“nubber”—and earned some money.

My next job was when I was 9 years old, helping in the school cafeteria during breakfast because my dad was an administrator and I always arrived early. It wasn’t glamorous—I took my classmates’ trays and dumped their uneaten oatmeal into a pail. But I got to stand in a window on a stool and wear an apron, and it felt important. Plus, I earned 50 cents a day and never wanted for Trixie Belden paperbacks and Garbage Pail Kids stickers.

I took some gap years in my tweens, then at 16, I worked at the library in my small hometown, an Andrew Carnegie beauty, the prettiest building for miles. In college, more libraries, a campus bakery, a pizza magazine (Pizza Expo in Las Vegas!), dorm resident assistant, a big law firm, designing For Dummies books. The worst job I had was at a phone book company. I scanned previous listings for new editions, but the text recognition was so poor back then that it couldn’t pick up the tiny print, and I ended up entering most of it by hand.

But the guy I sat next to was the frontman for a metal cover band, and we would sing ’80s jams all day. For a summer job, I couldn’t complain.

I didn’t get the gig driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile after college. But soon enough, I landed in magazines. I got to cover the U.S. Open for Tennis magazine and travel the world for ATA’s inflight publication. I was in the Bahamas for the opening of Jimmy Buffett’s musical and danced the conga with him through the Atlantis hotel to the after party, where I boogied with a few cast members from The Sopranos. I learned tai chi in Hong Kong and went to a Carnival rehearsal in Rio de Janeiro. It was a good work life. But at 48, my luck ran out. I would see what a month of volunteering would do for me.

The Plan

First, I wanted to hold babies in a NICU. It’s called being a cuddler. Most hospitals let volunteers cradle sleeping newborns. Eskenazi Health’s website says that “being held is a natural, no-cost intervention that can help with pain management, better sleep, faster growth, and shorter hospital stays.” And that’s just for the babies. For me, it seems like the most peaceful feeling in the world. But everyone wants to be a cuddler, as it turns out. Retired grandmas have that job on lock. The waitlist is long, and the vetting process takes a while. Some hospitals also cut their programs during Covid and haven’t resumed. So, no babies.

However, the Central Christian Church food pantry downtown on Fort Wayne Avenue was able to slot me in immediately. I wanted to try a food bank in honor of my late father, who volunteered at one throughout his retirement. What people don’t know about food banks is that volunteers are more important than donations. Don’t go shopping or spend time cleaning out your cupboards. Show up instead. “Volunteers are our lowest resource,” says Katie Angel, the pantry coordinator at Central Christian. Gleaners Food Bank, which helps stock some food pantries around town, knows how to stretch dollars further than you can at the grocery. Unless you have come across a mother lode of granola bars, your time is more valuable to a food pantry than your canned vegetables.

I was impressed with how well-organized Central Christian’s pantry was and how many people it served on a Saturday morning. One room was set up like a grocery store, complete with packaged items on shelves and fresh produce. About 70 patrons used grocery carts to shop the room one at a time, giving the experience a touch of normalcy and dignity. Volunteers helped them find items, kept things moving along, and chatted with regulars. People left with three to four bags of food and toiletries, then we swept the floors and tidied up.

It should come as no surprise that some patrons looked like me, well-dressed and not obviously unhoused. You just never know when you’ll fall on hard times. I wondered if I’d be there myself one day soon, humbled and hunting for free cereal and toilet paper. It didn’t seem like a leap.

The next stop was Joy’s House, a nonprofit adult daycare with two locations. Aging issues are a passion of mine, so I spent the day sitting at a long table with six patients in various stages of dementia or decline, playing games, singing, clapping, chatting, and doing seated exercises. Joy’s House gives shut-ins some socialization and their caregivers a break. I’m not sure I added anything to the day. An energetic University of Indianapolis student who works there did most of the talking. But if you like to keep people company, Joy’s House is a worthy cause.

Onward to Junior Achievement’s BizTown, a remarkable program for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. It’s a mock community that the kids run for a day after spending classroom time preparing. The town looks like a movie set inside a warehouse-style building at 75th Street and Keystone Avenue. There’s a hospital, radio station, town hall, utility companies, businesses, and even an airport. Every kid has a job and arrives ready to work.

I supervised the electric company, making sure the five students followed provided instructions, like collecting payments, holding meetings, executing marketing plans, and conducting energy audits around BizTown. Several hundred kids scooted around like a colony of bees, juggling their jobs and personal requirements, like medical checkups and bank errands. The mayor gave a speech. Kids got paid and got to shop for tchotchkes. It felt like chaos, but they actually got stuff done, a credit to how well-organized the program is. And most kids were excited to have a job. It took me back to childhood, when I dreamed of what I wanted to be when I grew up—before I knew anything about rejection, competition, office politics, pay freezes, and burnout.

I’m really not good with kids, though. I don’t have kids, and I’m not very fun. So, when I moved on to Damar Services, a social service organization that runs a residential campus for troubled and autistic kids, the holiday shopping day was a good fit. Volunteer “elves” report to a Meijer store, receive a shopping list, and hit the aisles, staying under budget. Spending someone else’s money is the perfect thing to do when you’re unemployed, especially when it’s going to provide Christmas for kids experiencing hardship.

I hung siding for Habitat for Humanity one afternoon, amazed at how quickly they put total DIY rookies to work with power tools. At Little Angel Gowns, started by an Eskenazi nurse, I sorted fabric to be used to sew satin and lace burial garments for babies and donated to their grieving parents. At Coburn Place, a domestic violence shelter in a former IPS school with 35 apartments, I wanted to decorate a place for a new resident, something fun to do with a group. But the next apartment wasn’t opening up for a couple months, so I sorted and restocked diapers in a closet, which is the kind of help they really need. Coburn Place allows you to take ownership of a task and do it on your own time.

Volunteers don’t mind menial work, but they don’t like to waste their time where they aren’t needed. It’s easy to assume that some events that rely on volunteers don’t require more, but you might be surprised. The beloved Italian Street Festival at Holy Rosary Catholic Church has been going strong for 40 years and every year appears to have plenty of booth-minders and food runners. But it took 10 of us to keep our heads above water on breadstick duty alone. (By then, my monthlong plan had stretched to the next year and I was still unemployed.) I posted up on the sauce line, spooning cheese and marinara nonstop into ramekins. Surprisingly, cheese was two times more popular than red sauce as a dipping option, and it was temperamental and not easy to work with quickly. Another volunteer said that her husband would know how to speed things up—he’s a fluid flow engineer. There really is a job for everything.

It seems like the big organizations have volunteering down to a science, and I marvel at coordinators who keep things going while dealing with unpaid workers and moving targets. But small organizations need help just as much as the high-profile groups and well-oiled machines of the world, and they often don’t have the time to organize it. I’d always wanted to visit Nine Lives Cat Cafe—a coffee shop featuring free- roaming, adoptable foster cats—so I emailed asking if they needed volunteers. Not formally, the owner replied, but she’d be grateful if I could sweep up litter and refill water bowls one day, freeing her up for administrative stuff. It wasn’t like she couldn’t live without me, but there’s a chance someone got to adopt a kitty that day because the owner had an extra set of helping hands.

Volunteering isn’t about you, but there’s nothing wrong with giving your time in exchange for perks. The Indiana Sports Corp is good for that, giving volunteers the chance to witness huge sporting events like the Final Four while putting them to work. (Raise your hand if you helped set up Madonna’s Super Bowl halftime performance in 2012.) The Indy Film Fest uses pro bono screeners. With Random Acts of Flowers, you learn to arrange State Fair competition–worthy bouquets, which are then delivered to sick people and senior citizen homes.

Here’s a secret one: You can rappel down a skyscraper if you volunteer for United Way’s annual fundraiser, Over the Edge, and choose the ropes crew. I stumbled upon this as my last gig this past summer, after dishing up shortcakes during the Indy Strawberry Festival and herding kids through a National Junior Tennis and Learning tournament. I’m irrationally afraid of falling from extreme heights but not standing on a rooftop. It said no experience necessary. So I registered.

The ropes crew reported for training the day before the event at the Keystone Building, a 23-story tower at Ohio and Meridian streets. Those who wanted to participate had to raise $1,500 or more for United Way. I at first believed I was volunteering to stand at the bottom and help steady the rope as the rappelers neared the ground, but as I was practicing putting on a harness, it occurred to me that this wasn’t necessary to learn to hold a rope for someone else. I was being prepared to rappel myself.

It wasn’t required, of course, but everyone except one person was up for it. In fact, most of them had done it before. One woman was terrified, though she was on her seventh go. “The best things in life are on the other side of fear,” she said. I agreed to go forward with it, coolly yet foolishly, because it was for the story. Never mind that I couldn’t ride a cherry picker to the top of my brother’s tree a few years ago without hyperventilating. I knew this was safe. How hard could it be?

Cut to me standing on a tall platform at the building’s edge the next day, my back to the abyss. I was shaking and crying. On another platform, a volunteer in the same position was also shaking and crying. Her team coached her to the rim, inch by inch, until she stood half off the platform and began lowering herself into a seated position, her rear end above 300 feet of air.

I’ve been told the scariest part is those few moments of sinking before the harness catches you. Then, apparently, you press your feet against the glass, pull the descender handle, and just walk. The Over the Edge crew is skilled at talking people through their fears. They had coaxed me this far, a few steps from the point of no return. “Only one person has ever not gone,” a crew member reassured me.

Was I about to become the second person? I wasn’t sure, but I felt as if I was teetering on more than just the edge of a downtown high rise. I might have also reached the limits of my volunteering potential—a literal cliffhanger …

The Booster Club

While I’m not above chasing perks through volunteering (I handled transportation for a tennis exhibition here years ago just so I could drive John McEnroe and other legends to the airport and catch some gossip), most people have better intentions. Take Rick, the one regular volunteer at Nine Lives Cat Cafe. After a career at Lockheed Martin in California, he retired early, returned home to Indianapolis, and now spends close to 40 hours a week giving back.

On Mondays, he’s an on-call handyman for Gennesaret Free Clinics’ Health Recovery Homes. On Tuesdays, he does chores at Nine Lives, then helps cook 4,000 meals at Second Helpings. On Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, he lends his construction skills to Habitat for Humanity and Service at Work (SAWs), which builds free wooden wheelchair ramps for those who are low-income and permanently disabled. “I was a mechanical engineer, and that was stressful,” he says. “What I do now is not stressful at all, which is probably why I enjoy it. A long time ago, before I retired, I thought about the meaning of life. It’s to serve others.”

Indianapolis is uniquely defined by this spirit. Volunteering is the motor of our industrial sports complex, built up a few decades back as an economic strategy to put the city on the map and show what this community can accomplish. It began with the Pan Am Games, which we hosted in 1987, and peaked with the Super Bowl in 2012. Our volunteer spirit is always humming along outside of the spotlight, too. “Every major event that has come through Indy in the last 10 years is run on the backs of volunteers,” says Al Carroll, president of IndyHub, a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities. “We put on big events better than anyone in the country.”

In 2021, Indy saved the NCAA men’s basketball tournament by hosting the whole thing—all 68 teams in one spot—under pandemic restrictions. The Indiana Sports Corp compared the complexity of arranging the event to the Olympics. It wouldn’t have happened without thousands of volunteers who pitched in on tasks both major and menial, such as doing laundry in the backs of box trucks.

Our love of giving our time means Hoosiers have started 13,000 registered nonprofits in Indianapolis, according to IndyHub. That may actually be too many. “Try really hard to find an organization where you want to help before you start one,” Carroll says. “Usually there is an entity that exists, and maybe their leadership has fallen off. I ran into an organization that had $10,000 for breast cancer research in its account but was without leadership for five years. You could have picked it up and run with it.”

Another example of a ready-made opportunity is the free medical clinic at St. Mary’s Catholic Church downtown. It largely serves Latino and unhoused populations, providing no-cost exams and medications to anyone who needs them. And it is in danger of closing after 16 years. Even though the clinic is busy, it’s down to just two volunteer physicians—not enough to open every Saturday. After the current director made an announcement at St. Mary’s mass recently, 10 people (including a few doctors) stayed afterward to express their interest. Fingers crossed.

That’s the thing about Indy—someone usually steps up, and not just when they are in a period of crisis, like me. Many benefits of volunteering are obvious, but life coach Teresa Sabatine enlightened me about a benefit I hadn’t considered. “Sometimes, when you get fired, it’s all you can think about,” she says. “You think you should spend all day applying for jobs, but it creates a vacuum [filled by] disappointment and rejection. I’m all for moving your body in a new way, letting new sights and smells ignite a new energy in you.”

She makes a good point—we all know the healing power of taking on a fresh challenge. But here’s the thing: I chickened out of that rappelling assignment. That was not the new way I wanted to move my body. Rappelling might have felt like a big, scary feat that I needed to accomplish, just like figuring out what to do with my life after losing my job. But I realized that I didn’t need to rappel off a building to prove myself. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it; I didn’t want to.

I wanted the story. And I got it. The next day, 60-some people made it look easy while I stayed on the ground holding a rope, guiding each person to a seated position on the sidewalk before unhooking their rig. They raised more than $100,000 for United Way, which was the whole point. I didn’t need to conquer a fear to help make that happen. I have no regrets.

No one cared that I slunk back down in the elevator from the Keystone Building rooftop, and it dawned on me that no one really cares what my job is, either. I’ve been stuck on the vanity of it, but spending time at big-hearted places like Little Angel Gowns and Coburn Place opened my eyes—I need to do something I deeply care about. The cat cafe owner performed in orchestras for 20-something years, and after a career setback, she is cleaning litter boxes—for a great cause, of course. She’s not prideful about it. The humility was perhaps the most powerful example I encountered through volunteering.

Or does volunteer Rick have it right? Stability from 9 to 5 and altruism on the side? The answer is personal. I lean toward the intersection of passion and profession, and after so many different experiences in the last year, I knew where I belonged—right here, on the page, finding stories that make me pull out my phone and write 500 words with my thumbs.