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Finding My Niche as a Volunteer Coach

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Just a few weeks ago I sat in a Hoboken, N.J., church with tears in my eyes. It was a benefit concert for the local homeless shelter and in that moment my life coaching client, Mirna, was singing a song she had written.

That woman can belt out a tune and from my very first session with her over two years ago, I understood what an important part of her life music was.

At that time, Mirna resided at the homeless shelter, a 30-something former social worker with a degree from Rutgers University. We had been joined by a member of the shelter staff in that first session so he could make the introductions. Mirna was attentive and engaged in the process, a terrific beginning.

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A little back story is in order here.

I was inspired to become a life coach after the events of September 11, 2001. A television producer at the time, I decided to volunteer with an organization that paired under-served children with adult coaches.

When a life coach running the orientation suggested I should coach for a living, I decided to take it on and enrolled in training. Then, early in 2002, I was laid off from my fulltime TV job along with about 20 others.

Already immersed in coaching training, I decided to build a practice, that it would be my safety net. Unfortunately, I had been woefully unprepared for a rainy day and my financial fears were escalating with each passing month. In the meantime, the clients weren’t coming fast enough and I suddenly began to notice the homeless people everywhere in my urban town and in Manhattan.

Slowly, as I began rebuilding my finances, I continued to become more and more intrigued with the homeless.

What could I do to help?

Certainly not in a position to write big checks, I had this idea. Why not coach one resident of the shelter pro bono? Immediately I knew that my best bet was to approach the director of the shelter and ask for a recommendation, a person who would be responsive to coaching, and, well, show up for our sessions.

Enter Mirna.

The Universe could not have sent me a better fit. A can-do coach, I gravitate to creatives and Mirna is a singer and writer. Lyrics pour from her mind to a notebook page on a regular basis. She is constantly creating. We meet every Thursday at 4 p.m. in the same café and every so often I can nudge her into humming a few bars across the table.

Early in our coaching relationship, she expressed a desire to enter a singing competition in Las Vegas. With the help of some fundraising and publicity in the local newspaper, we got her on a bus (yes, a bus) that transported her across the country with a gown in tow. She won first place in her category and was beaming about that trophy for months. I think it’s what carried her through the tricky but rewarding transition from the Hoboken homeless shelter to subsidized housing in a nearby town.

Here’s the thing. Mirna has a mental illness, has had suicidal episodes and is under strict medical care, both for dispensing her medication and to gauge her weekly progress through group therapy. (I reveal this despite coach-client confidentiality because she herself told her story to a reporter and it has been published). While coaching her has been immensely satisfying, there have been days that have frustrated me and even driven me to tears.

I learned early on that just like when coaching any other client, I must be mindful of boundaries and what I am qualified to do and not do. When her social worker isn’t getting her food coupons to her in a timely manner or there are issues with her housing, I don’t intervene. Instead, I guide Mirna in how to ask for what she wants and needs. We have frequent boundary-setting talks in our sessions as she navigates life on her own.

She is currently taking voice lessons at the Singers Forum in New York City – distinguished alumni of this not-for-profit organization include Liza Minnelli and Tony Bennett — and is thriving under the care of her teacher. One of my adventures with her included accompanying her to an audition for America’s Got Talent. She is also well into writing a memoir about her recent journey into and out of homelessness.

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On that recent day I sat in the church listening to her sing, it was extra special because not only had she written the lyrics, but she had collaborated with a pianist at her school to create actual sheet music of her song. That had been one of her goals from the start. Prior to her performance, she asked me to stand and publicly thanked me.

If it is true what Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” then it seems I have found a significant part of myself by working with Mirna. Not one to do volunteer work most of my life, this coaching relationship has changed how I see myself in the world.

After the benefit concert, the pastor whose church had sponsored the event approached me.

“You’re doing Christ’s work,” he said.

I could not be more humbled or gratified.

About the Author

Nancy Colasurdo is a writer and a practicing life coach who writes a twice-weekly life coaching column called Game Plan for FoxBusiness.com. An award-winning journalist and former Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, she is working on a memoir about the power of life coaching and the spiritual journey that changed her life. Her Web site is: www.nancola.com.

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There are 3 Responses so far...

Billy C H Teoh on June 8, 2010

I am not sure if I am mind reading or not. It seems to me that the trend is that coaches who enter into volunteerism and pro bono coaching is moving towards the necessity to find a niche, self-actualization, spiritual calling, and the transpersonal psychology domains.

The line between coaching and other domains like counselling, therapy, the ‘helping profession’, spiritual work and similar work seems to me to become blurrer than clearer.

Is this a good thing or will this further make the word ‘coaching’ more confusing since now we have ‘volunteer & pro bono coaching’ added as another dimension to the equation? ……and the need to define these as well?

Billy C H Teoh
Malaysia.

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Diane Krause-Stetson on June 8, 2010

Dear, dear Nancy. You moved me to goose bumps and tears. I knew that you have been devoting your pro bono service to an ongoing one-on-one relationship, but I had no idea of the profound impact that your coaching has had. Knowing you, I suppose I should have! How fortunate Mirna is to have you in her life. And, how blessed I am to call you my friend. Thank you for your inspiration.

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Linda Ballew on June 9, 2010

Nancy, thank you for this timely, personal story about your experience giving pro bono coaching. It’s a beautiful testimony to our current discussion.

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