Friday, December 02, 2005

The value of nothing

Canadian Supermodel Linda Evangelista famously refused to get out of bed for less than $10,000.00 a day.
The minimum wage for Canadians (on average) is $7.19 an hour. The highest lowest minimum wage is paid in Nunavut ($8.50 an hour) the lowest lowest minimum wage in Newfoundland ($6.25 an hour).
According to March 2005 Parade magazine, the median weekly wage for an American is $638.00 (half earned more, half earned less). The median salary for men was $713.00; for women, $573.00.
R.O.B. Magazine detailed a few salary and wage figures not so long ago that painted an interesting picture of Canadian compensation.
Bank of Montreal Chairman and CEO, Tony Comper, earned $900,000 in salary in 2003, plus a $1.4-million bonus. Even with the generous speculation by the article’s author that he works 15 hours a day, six days a week, 12 months out of the year, his take-home still averages out to a whopping $491.00 an hour.
A bank teller on the other hand, typically earned between $10.00 and $15.00 an hour, which at the high end averages out to $28,860.00 a year. If you can get fulltime hours.Increasingly, bank-tellering is becoming a part-time job. The low end is getting considerably lower.
Ontario plastic surgeons billed an average of $267,389.
Ontario's ophthalmologists and dermatologists pulled in $376,999 and $355,469, respectively.
The highest-billing specialists in Ontario were heart surgeons, who commanded an average of $448,911 in fee-for-service payments.
A General Duty Registered Nurse of the Ontario Nurses Association earned between $42,413 up to a maximum of $63,785 in 2002.
In the world of high tech, entry-level computer operators start at between $30,000 and $45,000. But help-desk support staff, the human punching bags of high tech, receive considerably less renumeration for being yelled at all day: salaries start at $31,000 and top out at $58,000.
Toronto Transit Union Local 113, says that drivers average, with overtime, $52,000 a year. At the high end, 3% earn $70,000, but according to the spokesthingie who provided the figures, that means they "never go home."
A Toronto Police officer makes about $70,000,
Most Canadian teachers with bachelor's degrees earn $33,000 to $60,000. None of it is tax-free; and they can't deduct home computer depreciation and office supplies.
(Out-of-pocket expenses are considerable-Canadian teachers spend about $430 of their own money on supplies. A British Columbia teacher fares worse; their province's average is $1,095 a year. Maybe that's why 40% of B.C.'s new teachers leave the profession within five years.)
A fulltime ballerina makes about $570.00 per week.
A reasonably successful opera singers is lucky if they make $25,000.00 a year after expenses.
No matter how enthused Gerrge Costanza might have been about his alter ego architect Art Vendelay, architecture, while it may pay big bucks eventually, is a profession with a long apprenticeship. After many years of post-secondary education, interns make between $27,000 and $45,000 a year. Associate architects with a small firm can make $50,000; associates with a big firm can make $130,000. Senior architects earn between $39,000 and $75,000. It’s not going to put them in a palace
An executive chef's salary ranges between $40,000 to $90,000, depending on the reputation of the restaurant and the chef. A good waiter in the same establishment, in a good year, earns around $40,000, tips and the minimum-wage hourly rate combined.
The best job I ever had paid about $4000.00 an hour. I worked mere minutes a day for a relatively outrageous annual salary. I had that job for three glorious years.
The worst paid job I ever had was painting a big old barn ‘Big Old Barn Red’. It took a high school friend and I about a week and I think we earned less than $50.00 each. Of course those were American dollars, so adjust your opinions suitably upward please.
These days I charge about $75.00 an hour for writing (for government and corporate clients) and get paid between 35 cents and a couple of bucks a word for magazine or newspaper publications.
But the most important thing I do doesn’t pay a penny, though at the risk of sounding hearts and flowers (and violins – why not) corny, the compensations are priceless.
So it’s not the ‘nothing’ that bothers me; it’s what I’ve recently come to realize is a nearly complete lack of value placed upon what I and other volunteers do.
I’ve been volunteering regularly for more than ten years now. I began at the CNIB reading tons of newspaper and magazine copy for Voiceprint, the ‘audio newsstand’ that broadcasts top national, regional and local stories from more than 100 Canadian newspapers and magazines for the blind, vision restricted, the elderly, or those with problems of literacy or learning difficulties.
I was there for three years. It was a lot of work – reading for a couple of hours straight is a throat-drying, yawn-inducing (you have to remember to breathe properly) strangely exhausting activity, but I can’t tell you the number of times people recognized my voice from this; far more than when I was the voice of two high profile television networks.
The technicians who recorded, edited and broadcast the material were all blind. I’m still not entirely sure how they did it; this was years ago – far before voice recognition software – or any software for that matter. They did it the old fashioned way: by ear and by hand.
After that, my voice a little raw and overworked, I joined up with the Distress Centre for three years. After extensive training and much role-playing through frighteningly well-acted suicide calls, I was accepted as a counselor, speaking with anyone who called in – suicidal, depressed, lonely, shut-in, drunk, handicapped, mentally unhinged, abusive or angry. We were an equal opportunity listening post.
We had to beware of the phone sex callers (cheapskates who would telephone ostensibly to discuss an upsetting sexual problem of some sort or other, but really to get their rocks off) who were often difficult to discern from the legitimately sexually troubled, until their breathing changed and their conversation became erratic. They tended to hang up with a cheery toodle-oo as soon as their needs had been met, sometimes right in the middle of what we might have thought was helpful listening. When they were done, they were done. We tried to catch these calls early, but were always careful not to cut someone off precipitously; genuine sexual problems were legitimately discussed by some of our most anxious and troubled clients. We were there to listen, and if we were occasionally taken in by a caller, (or grossed out by a genuine client) it was simply the price we paid to ensure that everyone who needed it got a fair and sympathetic hearing.
I received precisely one happy call in all the time I was there – from a woman who got engaged late, late at night and had no one to tell until a more appropriate hour, so she called me at 3 AM to share.
A much more typical call would be from someone suffering mental, emotional or physical symptoms that effectively cut them off from society. Lonely, slightly mad, tearful, drunk, stoned or even furious, they’d call from home, from the hospital, or from a payphone in a locked-down ward at the Clarke Institute. Just calling to say hi – or to ask if any of us sitting there in the near dark, softly-lit call room at a hidden location in downtown Toronto could think up a single reason they should carry on. Sometimes we tried to answer the unfathomable, but mostly we listened and befriended and suggested that perhaps one more day wouldn’t be so bad – and the one after that… and then we could go on from there. They could call whenever they needed us.
Suicide was the rarest type of call, but the calls came. It would be nerve-wracking when a suspected suicide would be at the other end of the phone, calling from the platform of a subway station, contemplating when they might jump, or ringing in from home, half-drunk and nearly passed out from an incipient overdose. We were like flight attendants trained in emergency measures who spend most of their time providing comfort and warm reassurances for their passengers (we of course had no sandwiches or tiny little packets of peanuts) but every now and terrifying then, strapping on the life vests and preparing for a crash.
The Distress Centre was an amazing place. We did not have call display, nor were our phones equipped to follow up a call with STAR 69. Clients had absolute anonymity.
We could ask a caller where they were, or try to get their permission to put a trace on their phone if they were becoming incoherent or slipping into unconsciousness, but we were never allowed to meet the clients or take part in their lives away from the phone room on the second floor of the small out-of-the-way downtown church where we took the calls.
We didn’t, for the most part offer advice, or suggestions, or attempt to psychoanalyze the callers in any way. We were simply there to listen, and by listening we befriended.
I would have and could have gone on at the Distress Centre for years, but after three of them, the strain of the overnight shift (we did three daytime and one overnight, midnight to nine shift per month) got to me; it took me ages to compensate for the disruption in sleep, no matter what I did, and the 4 AM blues were beginning to get to me, so I decided to try something else for a while.
I’ve been doing ‘something else’ for four years now. The somewhere I do it is a big hospital in downtown Toronto, famous for its top notch care, cutting edge surgical treatments and life-saving, internationally renowned research.
It’s an enormous place – so enormous, it could take daily shifts of five to ten volunteers, seven days a week simply to direct patients and families around its convoluted hallways and wings to the vast number of clinics and nursing units.
It takes hundreds – more than a thousand people – to support the patients and the variety of comfort and respite programs the people in Volunteer Resources man at no cost to patient or taxpayer.
(There is a budget for the department and four salaried professionals that direct the programs, train the volunteers and cheer us all on, but it’s minimal: splashing out for a sandwiches and fruit punch reception once a year to honour the individuals who donate hundreds of hours a year, for year after year is about the extent of the budgetary possibilities.)
And we’re not Candy Stripers or nice grandma ladies – not that there’s anything wrong either – but the senior citizens are outnumbered by the young and middle-aged professionals and smart as paint students who bear no resemblance to the volunteer of yore: there’s very little pushing of tea carts around. (Precisely: none.) And similarly, though there is plenty of reading to the younger patients, there’s a lot more video game playing and pet therapy and Battleships than The Three Little Pigs.
My colleagues are project managers and account supervisors from top Fortune 500 companies. They’re medical students and teachers and freelancers of all types and stripes. There are a couple of nurses and social workers. We have a retired high school principal (with a practiced gimlet eye, and a warm smile) a top software designer, a government consultant, a lawyer, an executive leadership coach and people who want to spend time usefully as they transition from one career to the next.
Most of us are women and most of us have fulltime jobs or class schedules. Most of us want to be with the patients, but some people feel their gifts are better used away from some of the more upsetting or emotionally charged bedsides, so they fill in in administrative or home-based placements.
We’re just grateful they take part.
It’s a dynamic, exciting, fully-engaging experience that is incomparable to anything else – and would register less value if it were compensated.
That’s really how we feel.
But to discover that because we aren’t paid and our contribution cannot be easily quantified, we aren’t valued beyond a general indulgent condescension, is a blow that is hard for volunteers to take.
We’ve become increasingly aware that volunteers have not been figured into the ongoing strategy planning and brainstorming that accounts for every other position, placement and department in the hospital, and is creating the ‘vision and value statement’ for the next five to ten years.
We’re not there. Not mentioned, not made use of, not factored in, nor accounted for. Our gifts of time and expertise – whether it be for baby-cuddling, game-playing, crafting, reading, pet therapy, hand-holding, shoulder-to-cry-on offering, errand-running, respite care providing, teaching, baby-sitting, computer programming, individual program creation, training, mentoring, organizing, heavy-lifting, traffic-directing, smiling, entertaining… and listening – always listening – is not even mentioned in the presentations, or supporting documentation, or the pages of overview material. Volunteers themselves were not included in the questionnaires distributed everywhere else. With the exception of a very few low-paying clerical positions, volunteers are not considered ‘internal’ for hiring practices, no matter how many years they’ve contributed, no matter how many volunteering or even professional awards they accumulate, no matter their real-world credentials.
But the administration and the board of directors and the foundation that raises extra funds and the friends of the hospital and the corporate sponsors and all the others that receive salaries and compensation to perform their functions and responsibilities for the hospital don’t ask us questions or listen to us if we speak. And they don’t know, beyond the most cursory understanding, who we are and what we provide.
And they should – because our stories are interesting.
Besides my direct interaction with the patients, I am involved in interviewing and selecting candidates to take the training in anticipation of being accepted and becoming a volunteer. I’ve learned that the quality of the people who apply to do this unpaid work with such enthusiasm and commitment are for the most part, there is no other description – extraordinary.
(Privacy issues make it necessary to generalize or exclude any identifying details.)
Yesterday I spoke with three applicants.
The first applicant, a woman in her early thirties was a recent immigrant to Canada. Her English was excellent, her qualifications and experience helping others extensive, and her reason for waiting a couple of months before applying for a volunteer position was that she had been recovering from a lengthy, extensive, life-altering, intensely painful facial surgery.
She looks fantastic now. And she can’t wait to begin. She feels she can relate to patients in pain – she feels she can help by understanding.
The second candidate was a student in her early twenties who had, she told me, been anxious for some time to join the volunteer ranks at our hospital. She told me she had been in a terrible accident some years earlier, knocked over in the street, critically injured; she had been completely paralyzed, brain-injured and on the brink of death. Through the long months and years of recovery, she remembered particularly the volunteers who had become a part of her life – the people who relieved her boredom and kept her company through many lonely days and nights, the individuals who had become a surrogate family - and who she felt she owed a debt of gratitude to. This was the hospital she had spent so much time in; this was the place where she wanted to return.
My third and last interview of the day – and I was already on an emotional high from meeting the first two – was a young woman also in her twenties, also a university student.
We went through the standard introductory questions about her desire to volunteer, her expectations and the qualities she might bring to the position. I was trying to decide which area of the hospital might suit her best and she helped me out by telling me she was studying medicine and was considering a career in pediatrics; she wanted to know how she would feel particularly being around children in pain – if she could cope with the notion of surgery in infants.
“I know the deal from the other side,” she informed me. “I spent a lot of time in a hospital as a child.”
It turned out she’d been in a horrific car accident at the age of five that had killed one of the passengers in the car and had seriously injured her mother and sister. She herself had been comatose for a week, her sister for considerably longer. There were many more weeks of recovery and surgery and months of rehabilitation, but she was fine now – an athlete of some considerable success (and even a little bit of fame) and in between full time classes and a busy sports team schedule, she hoped we’d accept her as a volunteer and allow her to squeeze some of her spare time into our program.
Would we? We would.
The point is this: these women are not unique. As special as they are, there are others with similar stories to tell; people who know the smell of the hospital from the under-side of the sheets in a long-term care bed. They know the boredom and the terror and the loneliness and the pain and the appalling food and the endless days followed by longer nights.
They know what it’s like to see families frozen in agony and fear. They know what so many of even the doctors and nurses don’t know: what it’s like to be helpless and sick and at the mercy of strangers who probe and stick and cut and prod and squeeze and rip and who might have to leave mid-procedure to attend to an emergency. They haven’t just seen patients’ bodies exposed to the elements, they themselves have been exposed to the avid eyes of strangers who never look into their own eyes, but who will know them in ways that even their most intimate relationships will never, and should never achieve.
They are the very best of volunteers.
And they are three more who will join our ranks and disappear from bureaucratic sight because though they will be able to provide a depth and level of understanding and care for vulnerable patients and their stressed-out families, they will receive no salary and so their contribution will amount to nothing.
We need money for more training, more staff and the resources to recruit even more volunteers. We need workshops on bereavement and depression and how to listen effectively.
We need money for training and education of the other healthcare professionals in the hospital so that they can make better use of this enormous, dedicated, resourceful, talented and committed resource.
We need for people to know that the value of volunteering isn’t in the physical health care that volunteers do not and have no business providing, but for the priceless humanity they bring to sick rooms and clinics and isolation wards in a hospital where besides family and friends, they are the only people who enter the room with no agenda to hurt or prod or inject or study or interrogate or frighten, or even to bring appalling food.
We’re there for the human part of them that needs company and fun and distraction and attention and a reminder that they exist as a whole person, and not just as their illness or injury in isolation.
Not being friends or family, they don’t have to comfort us or protect us – from awful information, or even just from their depression – and they don’t have to put on a brave face, or even an interested one. They can even tell us to go away without worrying that we will be hurt or dismayed. Because if we are, they don’t need to know.
This is not a polemic against the health professionals – the doctors and nurses and other front line hospital staff who would probably be thrilled to have the time to sit with a patient and keep them company, allay their fears, hold their hand or cuddle them if they’re crying. But with cut-backs and lay-offs and downsizing and outsourcing, they simply cannot.
And someone needs to do it.
But until a genuine value is placed on work that isn’t paid, the role of the volunteer and the contribution they make will continue to be devalued. Being unquantifiable and non-revenue producing is starting to affect the range of activities we can perform and the array of people being drawn to the task.
We don’t want our heads patted, or our contributions praised, or to be favoured with some meaningless award that allays the responsibility for those whose job it is to weigh and measure where resources will be allocated and the direction in which patient care is going.
We just want to work and to take part and to help the patients and families who need simple human interaction when they are at their most vulnerable. Without taking volunteers into account and without valuing the contribution they can make and the service we provide, the programs and quality of volunteers we can recruit are going to begin to deteriorate.
And the loss may be incalculable.

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