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Volunteer horror stories

When service projects go bad.

By Angela Barnaby. Illustration by Matt Vincent. |

Paint it black
Work was humming along for volunteer project manager Elise Cochran, 32, of Woodlawn at Jose de Diego Academy in Wicker Park during the 2007 Chicago Cares Serve-a-thon. That is, until she came face-to-face with “an extremely irate man who had black paint strewn all over the hood, windows and roof of his gold Nissan Altima.” The five-gallon bucket of black oil paint had been sitting in the street near where volunteers were painting a fence and was an easy target for the speeding Altima. Not knowing what else to do, Cochran “immediately began cleaning the man’s car with the underside of my T-shirt.” The driver didn’t appreciate her buffing efforts and began motioning to his angry family members gathering on a neighboring porch. That’s when Cochran gave up on diplomacy and called the Chicago Cares emergency hotline, and then the police. “In case you were wondering,” she says, “oil paint doesn’t come out of T-shirts, either.”

Here’s the kicker
Former TOC staffer Christina Couch was teaching improv theater to inner-city middle schoolers when a kid who insisted on playing a sassy cheerleader high-kicked her in the face. “I started bleeding like crazy and ran out of the room, terrified I would bleed on one of the kids and bring a lawsuit on the organization,” Couch recalls. Her flight caused the kids to totally lose it. “When I came back, they were literally running in circles and the kid who kicked me was in the corner crying. It was sheer insanity.”

Supper solo mission
AmeriCorps alum Gerald Palmer, 28, of Edgewater, once found himself flying solo while cooking dinner for 15 North Side Chicago Housing Authority seniors. “The other volunteers were 90 minutes late, and I really needed about ten more arms,” Palmer recalls. “I had to run to the store for juice, and I apparently bought the wrong kind because the seniors were seriously upset.” By the time the rest of the volunteers showed, Palmer had quieted the juice mutiny and settled everyone into a nice game of bingo. Or so he thought. “At the end of the night, one of the ladies pulled me aside and said, ‘Are you in charge here? This was all lovely, but the beans were cold and everyone was too loud.’”

Baby got lackey
Veteran Chicago Cares volunteer leader Jesse Bley was painting hallways at a school in West Englewood when he found himself taking on an unexpected role. “One of the volunteers was the CEO of a company sponsoring the event,” says Bley, 33, of Evanston. “Of course, the guy came to the project wearing dress clothes, and of course he stepped in a pan full of blue paint.” Bley alerted the exec before he could Smurf up the entire floor, but he wasn’t prepared for what came next. “He had to take his shoe off to clean it, but all the walls were wet and there was nothing for him to hold for balance. So he told me to bend over.” Bley reluctantly hunched over while the CEO gripped his back with one hand and grappled with the dress shoe with the other. “When the shoe finally came off, he slapped me on the back and said, ‘Good boy!’ The last thing I saw before getting the hell out of there was the guy’s minion racing toward the bathroom to clean the messy shoe.”

When volunteering gives you lemons…
Nonprofit professional Jennifer G., 31, of Andersonville, heard grumbling as she led a group of corporate volunteers through a playground rehab at Chicago Child Care Society in Hyde Park one rainy day. “When we started up again after lunch, I had to go hunting for a handful of rogue volunteers,” she says. She was stunned to find the group sitting in a parked car in front of the building, chugging Mike’s Hard Lemonade. “I wanted to drag them all inside by the ears, but instead I had to use my professional voice and say the words inappropriate and respectful a lot,” she remembers. “Seriously, it’s a children’s agency. Who does that?”

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