Lunch on Tuesdays at Recovery Cafe is Chinese food: slinky lo mein, fragrant fried rice. Every week, Michelle Dillon stands behind the line at the Denny Triangle support center for recovering addicts, slicing up the many onions required to pull off one of the nonprofit’s most popular meals. She balances this unpaid gig—along with the help she lends to homeless causes, film festivals, and food banks—with a day job as the sole salaried employee at Books to Prisoners, where she processes literature requests from inmates across the country. It all adds up to a staggering amount of civic commitment in a city that’s becoming harder to live in by the day.
Many of us catch the volunteer spirit around the holidays. You go all year. How?
Volunteering is a 365-day-a-year commitment. It’s not something you should do because you feel good about it. It’s something you do because there’s a gap in services that needs to be filled.
You work across organizations and causes. Is there a theme to it all?
Support. It’s about helping people in very vulnerable situations feel that they have people out there watching their back. The staff members at Recovery Cafe, for example—they know everybody’s name, they know everybody’s story. People have gone through rough shit, and they know that it’s totally okay to talk about it.
How healthy is the volunteer culture in Seattle?
The level of dedication in this city is unparalleled. I have been blown away by the number of people who want to help, who give so many hours. We have people who come in to Books to Prisoners who give 10 hours a week.
And yet, so many of us feel like we have no time.
I have had a lot of good fortune. The more that I see Seattle becoming divided, the more that I see people being pushed out for lack of having the same good fortune, I feel like I have to do something. It’s not like I’m donating a million dollars, but I do have time. I might as well use it rather than sitting around watching more Netflix in my pajamas.
So you’re concerned about the direction Seattle’s headed?
I hope that it doesn’t just become a playground for people who are affluent, because I think it will lose a lot of what made it a great and interesting place to be.
And potentially turn off people who want to make a difference.
I make $15,600 a year. I live an hour away from work. I can’t tell you the last time that I went out on the town. Which is also perhaps what motivates me to spend all my time volunteering. It’s one of the few free things to do in this city.