Trends: Volunteers Gone Wild

Infighting! Back-stabbing! Meltdowns! In Philly these days, lending a helping hand isn’t what it used to be

It seems that in the life of nearly every committee, subcommittee or event, there’s that moment when someone who seems relatively normal suddenly goes cuckoo. Beautifully groomed women in Theory outfits turn into nasty-e-mailing harpies. Much vodka is drunk late at night while stewing over these e-mails, which leads to more regrettable e-mails and an angry trail of words. The volunteer locks herself in the den and watches the Sex and the City movie for the fifth time while sobbing under a blanket. Husbands are scared, and kids, who are subsisting on takeout, beg their moms never again to volunteer for anything.

“In my daughter’s first year of pre-school,” says a West Mount Airy mom, “at parent orientation, I looked around and there was one woman who looked cool. I kind of stalked her, and it turned out she was the room parent. We became friends, and somehow we ended up co-chairing every school event that year.” The year culminated in a gala auction and dinner, which the West Mount Airy woman says she dreaded getting involved with, but gave in because she didn’t want to disappoint her cool new friend. Sadly, it was nearly the end of their budding girl-mance. “It was crazy!” she recalls. “From January through May, it became almost a full-time job. We would stay at one person’s house in Penn Valley till 2 a.m., inputting items into the auction catalog. My husband was really angry about all the money we were spending on babysitters.” As she careened around to stores and restaurants, soliciting auction items for four solid months, West Mount Airy Mom started to crack. She’d recently left a 15-year career for full-time motherhood, and the demands of a young child, coupled with the shock of a complete change in her routine, left her without her usual emotional moorings. She approached the auction the way she used to tackle assignments at work, but her husband had a hard time seeing the charity event as on a par with her former (paid) job.

“I cried a couple of times,” she confesses. “Once, we were in a meeting, and I thought my friend was being condescending, and I snapped at her. She said, ‘Don’t you ever talk to me that way again!’ So we had a screaming match and both started crying.” The two were able to salvage their relationship, but West Mount Airy Mom now limits her school participation: “The next year, I helped set up on the day of the event, and that’s it.” She and her co-chair raised an impressive $20,000 with their event, but she still feels they fell short. “I think Gladwyne Montessori raised, like, $120,000 with theirs,” she says sadly.

It’s true that Gladwyne Montessori’s annual auction is an awesome fund-raising vehicle. The moneyed parents at the school manage to cull auction items that are more Park Avenue than pre-K: Last February’s party was held at Citizens Bank Park, and among the offerings that brought in more than $70,000 were use of a Paris apartment for a week, dinner for 10 at the Four Seasons, and a tour of Washington, D.C., donated by Senator Arlen Specter’s office. And this money serves an excellent purpose.