The Perennial Volunteer

By Mary K. Schaffer October 30, 2012

Jeanette Lachman.

Standing at just 5-foot-2, she flits around the study lounge, moving from her computer to her books to her bag, shuffling papers and managing phone calls. It is the night before her big event, and she nervously fidgets and fusses because everything must go smoothly tomorrow.

Government junior Jeanette Lachman, a tiny creature, has a big heart. She volunteers with several diverse organizations and causes around the city, such as the Jonas Arts Center, SXSW, Austin City Limits, Safe Place, Habitat for Humanity and the Center for Political Studies to register voters. She even created an Amnesty International group, which focuses on issues of human rights and social injustice, at Austin Community College, where she attends school. Tomorrow night, Lachman’s Amnesty International group will present a documentary film and Q&A session about three student journalists who visited Sri Lanka in 2009, collecting signatures on a petition that will “hopefully” encourage the Sri Lankan government to find a missing journalist.

Lachman checks her email one last time before she shuts down her computer for the night, eyes scrunched up and back hunched over. She whispers, “One more email. Then sleep.”

Amnesty International is Lachman’s baby. She created it, grew it from the ground up. It is her “lifelong commitment,” so much so that she does not even consider it to be volunteer work.

“It’s what I have to do,” Lachman says. “If something is not right, if it’s not okay in the world, I can be part of the solution [through Amnesty International].”

Tomorrow night’s event has been weeks in the making. Lachman, sleep-deprived and jittery from the two cups of black coffee coursing through her small body, says it has been one of “her biggest planning nightmares” but will be worth it once it is over.

“Then I can focus on my other projects,” Lachman says, raising her cup of coffee as a slow smile spreads across her face. “Who needs sleep?”

Her next project includes urging her housemates to vote in the Nov. 6 elections and attend an election watch party hosted by College Houses, an organization that offers college students affordable housing near campus. In early October, Lachman ran a voter-registration drive at each of the cooperative houses College Houses sponsors.

“Jeanette really encouraged me to vote,” biology junior Carlos Molina, one of Lachman’s housemates, said. “I could tell she was really passionate about it. I could tell it meant a lot to her that we participate.”

Lachman plans to participate in more volunteer projects next semester, such as volunteering with SXSW in March, even though volunteering there last year was one of her worst experiences.

“It was so overwhelming and so tiring,” Lachman said. “And I didn’t even get to go to some of the events. But it was still fun. And free, which is always nice for a student.”

Having explored the city through voluntarism, Lachman says she has realized it is important to get involved with her city.

“I think it’s important to help out and contribute to local community, because you don’t make it on your own,” Lachman said. “I mean, Amnesty International is focused on issues affecting people around the world, but human rights issues happen here, too.”

Lachman says she fears ignorance, especially when it comes to human rights issues. She volunteers to work against that ignorance and noninvolvement.

“It’s so easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed and ignore everything that you hear about,” Lachman says. “But you can be part of the solution. You matter. We matter. That’s why I volunteer everywhere.”

After tomorrow’s screening, Lachman looks forward to sleep. She says she “does too much,” but “wouldn’t quit any of it.”

“I really don’t know how she does it all,” nutrition junior Fay Pemberton, another of Lachman’s housemates, said. “She is this little ball of energy and smiles. Somehow, she has time for her friends and all her volunteer work. I couldn’t do it.”

Tonight, Lachman packs up her computer and shuts off her phone, mouthing, “No more tonight.” She gulps the last little bit of coffee, turns to the other studiers in the room and says, “Goodnight, everyone. I hope you’re all coming to the screening tomorrow!” At long last, Lachman shuffles off to her room, dropping onto her bed without changing clothes. She is done.

For today.

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