I am celebrating one year volunteering at The Contributor vendor office, but my connection to the newspaper actually began years ago through a vendor I befriended named Curtis.
I met him because I would walk my dogs by his spot at 8th and Wedgewood. I developed a real fondness and admiration for Curtis and I would take him to run errands, get groceries and regularly take him his favorite treat — a blueberry muffin. We would ask about each other’s lives. He always said he would pray for me, even though he knew that I was not religious.
It was incredible to see him continue to work selling the paper, even through the cancer that eventually took his life. And after he passed, I decided it was time for me to get involved with The Contributor officially.
Most of my past volunteer efforts have been with places where I did not have a sense of satisfaction and that were not well organized. For someone who likes things to run efficiently, this can be a problem! I found myself time and again, cutting out and looking for a better fit. Fortunately, The Contributor has felt like a good fit from the start. There is good communication between volunteers, a wonderful scheduler and leaders who always express their gratitude. Episodic volunteering doesn’t work for me, I prefer to schedule a regular time each week so I can develop relationships over time.
The vendors are pretty amazing. I was immediately struck by how respectful and business-like the vendors are. They pick up on the sales operations quickly, and find their own groove in this nontraditional job. It’s fun to get to know each vendor, learning their quirks and habits, and listening to their stories. When they come into the office, they get more than newspapers — they find companionship, friendly banter, a clean restroom and oftentimes a bite to eat. I only wish I was better at learning all of the vendors’ names. Sometimes I run into them in different neighborhoods and will stop for a chat so I can hope to call them by name when I next see them in the office.
The office is run very business-like with specific boundaries between the volunteers and the vendors. A volunteer may wish to offer more of their time or assistance to a certain vendor, but it’s not expected. In fact, it’s discouraged unless it is outside of business hours and office location. I think this really enforces the mission of The Contributor, which is to help the vendors become self-sufficient and to see themselves as contributing to society.
A wonderful group of people currently volunteer their time. I’m deeply impressed with the long-term commitment that many of these individuals have made. They are an inspiring group with a sincere love for what they do and the people they serve. Training to work in the vendor office has been pretty much “on the job” and when you do only one shift per week, it takes a while to learn the database and develop any proficiency. Thankfully, there is always one person with experience there to ensure things keep pace!
Recently, a vendor told me about how he has lost some regular customers because they saw him get into his vehicle. They interpreted his ownership of a vehicle as justification that they no longer need to purchase a paper to support a vendor, which is quite sad. The goal of the publication is precisely that — to help people raise their standard of living. Having a vehicle is part of the necessity of life these days. My hope is that people develop a greater appreciation for the progress that vendors make, and avoid drawing conclusions about their level of need.
It troubles me when I learn from vendors how they are sometimes treated. There are the obvious numbskulls who shout things from their automobile like, “Get a job!” In fact, Contributor vendors HAVE A JOB! Many of these people work harder and longer hours than most people that I know, and under much more stressful circumstances. And on top of it, many deal with physical and mental health issues, and overcome them to sell the paper. That kind of remark just makes me shake my head in disappointment over the level of ignorance about Contributor vendors.
Some people don’t see The Contributor as the quality newspaper that it is. I read most issues cover to cover, and I feel the paper provides well-written articles about many important subjects. I wish people viewed the paper more as a high-quality publication and less as though they are “giving money” to the sales vendor. It happens to be both things: a great paper and a way to help someone who has experienced, or is experiencing, homelessness.
One nice thing about volunteering is that it can offer opportunities for people with lots of different skills. Because I was once a corporate sales trainer, I’m in the process of revising the volunteer training tools. I’m also a clean freak, so tidying up the office is no sweat to me. You too can bring your talents to the table! Time, fundraising, office chores, writing op-eds or letters to the editor about homelessness or poverty — and I’m sure anyone who likes to cook would find their food highly appreciated in The Contributor vendor office! And of course, monetary donations are always welcome.
Volunteering for The Contributor has helped me see a different side of this changing city. When I see someone buy a paper from a Contributor vendor, it makes me feel that Nashville is full of people who are very caring.