Rewards for volunteering go beyond t-shirts, autographs

In 1990, when the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) sent out its first call for volunteers, it seemed like a fun thing to do. This would be a way to experience the Games for free while helping out with "a big event." For the Emory employees who embraced the Olympics early on, it has temporarily become a way of life. We've put in the hours so we could say we shared in a once-in-a-lifetime event in our city.

Since 1990, being a volunteer has allowed me the opportunity to be a greeter and ambassador at the airport, to work at test events and qualifying trials around Atlanta and on the Ocoee River in Tennessee, to work at the Celebrate Africa festival, to hug Izzy, to travel with the train tour across Georgia in 1991 when the Olympic flag was brought over from Barcelona, to meet and assist dignitaries and Olympic insiders at their organizational meetings in Atlanta, to greet visitors at the Olympic Experience public information center downtown and to help with various administrative duties within the ACOG offices. Several years ago, ACOG employees sponsored and built two Habitat for Humanity houses on Pryor Street, in view of the Atlanta-Fulton County and Olympic stadiums. Working on the Stephens family home for six Saturdays led me to join Emory co-workers to expand our participation with Habitat.

Because of my five-plus years of involvement with ACOG, I have been given the responsibility of leading and supporting 350 volunteers for five weeks in Athlete Recreation Services at the Olympic Village. Being a "supervisor" permits me to go anywhere in the Village and to assist and observe the athletes as they absorb the American South's culture and heat.

While volunteering of one's time is fun, it also is addictive. On the heels of the Olympics comes the Paralympics, which Europeans tell us are even better than "that other sporting event." Being the envoy to the team from the United Arab Emirates affords me the opportunity to walk with the team in the Opening Ceremonies on Aug. 15, to escort the Chef de Mission for 20 days throughout Atlanta, and to carry the Paralympic torch in early August in North Georgia. The Emory employees who are envoys for Olympic teams have had two years of extensive training, while the Paralympics hosts have had six months of weekly sessions and tours. No price can be placed on the experiences, knowledge and friends we have gained.

In cooperation with Morehouse College, Emory sponsored a second Habitat home, the Johnson family home which was one of the 100 being built to celebrate the Centennial Games. We integrated the Olympics theme with a trivia contest in an effort to get the students excited about the Games, as well as to reward them for their efforts on the house. Also, we worked to strengthen and further the commonalities of the two universities. With the guidance and support of Jari Grimm in the Dobbs Center, Bobbi Patterson in the Religion Department, and Jan Gleason in News and Information, Emory may be able to sponsor one of the 68 Habitat homes already slated to start after the Olympics. More than 30,000 families applied for those 100 homes just completed, so our work is not finished.

Besides filling a dresser with event t-shirts and a shoe box with lapel pins, volunteering with these three organizations has resulted in developing and honing skills for life: team building exercises, leadership and supervisory training, knowledge of international protocol, customer service training, contingency planning (bomb threats, power outages, etc.), time management, event planning and disabilities awareness. Many organizations encourage their employees to volunteer in the community so they can bring these new and improved skills back to the workplace.

Those of us at Emory who have recruited our friends and co-workers to drive a VIP car, to work with athletes in wheelchairs, to translate Russian or Arabic, to help with the recycling program, or to help drive nails on a cold Sunday in February, accomplish our mission when we see another individual reap the joys and rewards of helping out on a much-needed project. As Michael McQuaide of Oxford College has stated, service or volunteerism can address human needs that would otherwise remain unmet.

The faculty, staff and student volunteers in the Emory community who give their time for the Olympics and many other service agencies are giving more--their talents and knowledge. Their skills in medicine, computer technology and foreign languages are much needed as we host the world. Those who have experience with sports and athletes, and the volunteers who lend their beautiful voices in the ceremonies are sharing the best they have. And each one of us is a walking Chamber of Commerce for our community. For the time we give, each of us will have our own "Olympic experience" to share with friends and family for years to come.

There are people in the Emory community who have given thousands of volunteer hours for the Olympics preparations, and there are many who remain loyal to ongoing volunteer programs related to housing and hunger, education and health care, in churches, mosques and synagogues. They will continue to help in those organizations long after the Olympics have moved on to Nagano and Sydney. To the parents who take precious time to be away from their families to give to the community --great praise. By living the example you are teaching your children the value of volunteering of one's time and talents. In a recent Habitat appreciation breakfast at the Emory Conference Center, Andrew Young said that the recent transformation of our city could not have taken place without the thousands of volunteers who have come forth to help.

Beyond the free t-shirts, the athletes' autographs and the newly built Habitat homes, the intangible rewards are why we do it.

Rod Gary is a construction planner in the Facilities Management Division.

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