Earlier this summer I volunteered at our church’s Vacation Bible School (VBS). I’ve never volunteered with it before, and this was Girlchild’s first eligible year. We were both newbies. I was told that the Craft Leader position was pretty straightforward and easy, and it sounded more exciting than working in the nursery or manning snacks. All the crafts were pre-packaged from Oriental Trading, and I’d gotten a chance to preview them before the first day, so I wasn’t thinking much about prep work when I first entered the craft area. I’d dropped off Boychild in the nursery and Girlchild with her class.
I had at least 30 minutes, according to the schedule, before the first group of children arrived, organized by grade from Pre-K to grade 5. I was enjoying the silence. Two high school girls sat in the corner of my area, talking and texting. About 10 minutes later they came over and asked me if I was in charge of crafts; it turns out, these were my helpers. Nice of them to say hi.
One was always very quiet, except for whispers to her friend mostly. The other walked around with a surly look on her face. She was the outspoken one, and self-proclaimed VBS Expert.
“Have you done this before?” Expert asked.
“No, ” I replied, “Have you?”
“Oh yeah, I’ve been doing this for like 4 years. I also volunteer for other churches’ VBS’. I don’t love this one. My family technically goes to this church, but the other VBS’ are more fun and better organized. The person who organizes this VBS does a terrible job.”
Good to know…but I was confused because I know the Coordinator of our VBS and all I could think about over the last few weeks was how much work her job seemed to entail.
“So anyway, we probably need to open these little craft packages and get the stuff out and put them on each table. These kids can’t open the plastic bags easily, and when they do, they’ll leave them on the ground for us to pick up. Also there are these little silica gel packets in each craft bag and the little kids might try to eat those.” She went on to say, “Are they using strings for these? If so, we’d better cut pieces of string and leave a few colors at each table. You don’t want to leave scissors out. One little girl I had in another VBS last week cut another little girl’s hair and the parent was FREAKING out when she came to pick her little girl up and her hair was cut. Also, markers….make sure you have a cup of different colored markers at each table and make sure the colors are the same, or else the kids from different tables will fight over the colors.”
Wow! I was suddenly SUPER thankful for my surly expert helper! I hadn’t thought about any of these things! Everything looked like it was ready to go, but apparently not! We worked like crazy to get things set up before the kids arrived.
I thanked Expert and told her I was very glad she was here. She went on to tell other horror stories, though, like the second grader from another VBS who sat at her craft table and held her breath for as long as she could as part of a contest with her peers, and actually made herself pass out and then accidentally bloodied her nose on the table. The parent wasn’t even surprised when he picked her up and took her home that day.
“Oh and you have to shout the instructions over the kids because they won’t listen. Their group leaders aren’t that helpful, either, so you pretty much have to tell them what to do.” With each new comment she was making me panic more and more until I mentally took a step back and reminded myself that….This. Is. Vacation. BIBLE. School. How bad could these kids be??
I laughed and said, “You’re making me feel like I’m an inner city school teacher starting her first day here! Is it really that bad?”
She also volunteered to give the instructions to the kids. I tried it one time, and no one even knew I was talking. But she overcompensated and shouted.
“All right, LISTEN UP! God loves you! You’re going to sit down at the tables and make these little keychains that look like you! WE will GLUE the googly eyes on the keychains FOR you. If you need help let us know. When you’re done, put them over there on that table. Okay now go!”
As it turns out, there were rambunctious groups of kids for sure, but I didn’t really think it was as bad as she predicted. Maybe it’s because I have my own children with whom I stay home and I’m just tolerant of a fairly high level of chaos. Expert was pretty stressed out on some days. I just felt like I was back in college waiting tables again. Picking up trash under tables, retrieving items for the kids and their leaders, sweating and running around, etc. Even that old familiar feeling of relief when a group of people left a table….ahhh. And then the next group would come in….it was very similar to waitressing except I didn’t get any tips. Well, no monetary tips. Plenty of advice tips from Expert, which I started to tune out.
By the end of the week, Expert was spending more time texting and less time helping. I did have another Mom helper for 3 of the 5 days that week, and she was really starting to get annoyed with Expert. She whispered, “Nice of them to help. They’re just sitting over there while we work.” It probably should have annoyed me more. Maybe I should have said something. But I was so thankful for her help in the beginning that I let some things go.
It wasn’t the lack of help that got on my nerves the most, because after the first day I felt like I could handle things okay, and if the shizzle hit the fan it wasn’t the end of the world. What got on my nerves was the attitude. Expert went on and on about how disorganized our church’s VBS was and how awful the Coordinator was.
“I mean, this VBS I worked at North Carolina did such-and-such.” Whoa, wait…was she a career VBS volunteer?
“How were you working at a VBS in North Carolina?” I asked. I don’t remember her reply, but it seems that she has volunteered for 2-4 of these every summer, and gets annoyed when several choose the same theme in the same year.
Finally I was tired of her attitude and decided to speak up a bit. “If you have ideas for the Coordinator to improve things, considering you have experience with other VBS’, can’t you politely talk to our Coordinator and suggest some things?
“Oh, that’s pointless,” she replied. “They don’t pay any attention to the teenage volunteers. I tried to talk with her last year. She and I almost had it out last year.” Hmm. Really? Then why was Expert allowed back?
“So clearly you don’t enjoy volunteering for these. Do your parents make you sign up?”
“Yeah, they sign my sister up for a bunch and then make me volunteer too.”
Wait, so parents sign up their kids for more than one per summer? And then I remember a conversation with a friend of mine. She had said that she figured out that it was cheaper to send her child to as many VBS’ as she could than it was to send her child to summer preschool. Ahhh….so that’s what’s going on! Cheaper childcare! AND a good way to lose your teenager and get her out of your hair 5 mornings a week in a supervised Christian environment! This all seems so foreign to me but I have a feeling one day I will understand.
The interesting thing was that when it was time to sing the songs, as a larger group outside the craft room, Expert totally got into them. She commented that “this was her favorite song” at VBS and she sang and clapped. But I thought she hated being there?
I honestly had to go home that week and read my high school diary again to get back in the head of a teenager. I’d thought I’d had things all figured out at her age too. I remember that sometimes I was helpful, and sometimes I was surly. What I learned in my diary, though, was that I hadn’t known that much at all and I hadn’t known what I didn’t know. I also recall feeling that I just wish adults would listen to some of my “wisdom”–that confident feeling that you can do things better if only adults would care or listen. It’s a frustrating and helpless stage where your brain is very developed in some areas but not other areas.
As much as Expert annoyed me, I knew she could be worse, and I also felt sorry for her. In a year she’ll be off to college. I wish she’d come back and help with VBS in a couple of years. 🙂