Through a series of unfortunate events and traumas, I've been unable to work in any shape or form for over ten years. Worse I've been isolated much of this time and have become out of touch with my network and references. I'm also very introverted.

I'm in my early 40s now and previously worked as a research assistant on various short-term grant-funded projects (my degree is in sociology) for college postdocs. My treating physician suggested I could now start rebuilding my life and to start with volunteering. I also feel that I'm ready too, except it seems impossible to break through this wall.

The problem is work requires references and apparently volunteering does too. I've looked at a number of office position volunteering at various organizations, hospitals, etc. and it seems that they all require an interview. They have a whole list of interpersonal/work-related skills and experience they expect you to have. It gives me anxiety just to read through them. You'd think you were applying for a paid position in government.

Originally I wanted to get a loan, study and maybe get a masters, so I thought through education I would be able to get references and some part time work maybe leading to permanent job later. It was the same story as above, except now there are also requirements for recent coursework, minimum grades, X years of work experience related to your field, etc.

It seems that no matter what, it's the same problem. How do I break through and secure a position at an organization which is glad to have someone filling in instead of putting them under the microscope? Funny the other day I'm looking at this volunteering job that requires just going and sitting/talking to patients in the hospital, and it said they're looking for a person with "great interpersonal skills", "energetic", "confident", etc. All I'm thinking is that I actually need a position so I can acquire these skills, so I can regain my confidence and improve skills I have not used much in these years. But that's not what they're looking for...sigh.

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    I am not in the US, but I know in Europe there are actually people specifically working with people recovering from trauma and offering them options to take part through volunteering or small jobs in special, supervised projects. Maybe that would be an option for you? I am sure they will the be the best people to understand you in your position, guide you through the process and later actually be your references for you next position.
    – skymningen
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 8:59
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    Have you actually applied for some volunteer opportunities and gotten turned down? Or are you guessing you will get turned down based on the requirements?
    – user45590
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 11:20
  • Some related, possible duplicate, questions: "I have no references for jobs" and "Career Advice for someone returning to work mid-life"
    – David K
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 13:02
  • @DavidK neither of those has any good answers, and the one below in this one is excellent advice. The second question is closed. Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 13:48
  • Even if you feel like you don't fill in all the check marks, you should apply either way. Those exigent demands are put there precisely to scare off people who don't really want that job. Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 11:48

2 Answers 2


A church pantry will take anyone who walks in and volunteers. Hospitals are looking for volunteer "patient advocates", etc.

You start from doing volunteer gigs that require no references, get people who work there to be willing to act as references, then get volunteer gigs that require references and go from there to paid entry-level positions.

Your state Department of Labor offers support programs for those who wish to re-enter the workforce. These support programs are a one-stop shop where you practice resume writing, interviewing for positions. They'll work with you and coach you on how to search for, apply and how to get a position, refer you actual positions, etc. As an example, here is New York state's support program: Workforce1

You seem to totally lack confidence in who you are let alone what you want to do. And you seem clueless as to what to do next. For this reason, you most likely need guidance and resources from your state's Department of Labor's work entry/re-entry support program, and you need it badly. If you don't have a clue what your state's Department of Labor's work entry/re-entry support program is, go to your local public library and ask the staff for help in searching for it.

Having said that, you have to drive your own job search. People, programs, organizations and institutions can give you an assist but the bottom line is that you are going to have to be the one who has to do what needs to get done. No guidance in the world can help you if you lack the motivation and drive to actually do something for yourself, show up at interviews and take rejections and keep at it until you get a position. Bottom line is the only person who can help you all the way is you. You can't afford to be afraid to fail. Because you will fail plenty before you get your first paid position.

As a side note: "How do I break through, secure a position, where the organization is glad to have someone filling in and not put me under microscope instead?" You say you don't want to be put under a microscope, and you want references? You've got a problem right here. Because references that can't knowledgeably talk about your job performance are of no value to your prospective employers. And that's a problem that you created for yourself.

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    +1 This is EXACTLY the route I took. It worked. I had a stroke which caused a gap. First I volunteered. I went from volunteering to a part-time retail job, which then became full-time, then I moved up to a data entry job, then a contract programming job, and now a full-time perm position as a programmer. This is the best advice possible. Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 13:29
  • @RichardU Not everybody is that lucky though. More often then not, people stop after the first or second step because their skills aren't very scarce on the market, and then sooner or later end up homeless because well, volunteering doesn't pay any bills.
    – Magisch
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 14:16
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    @Magisch - you are Exhibit A that there's always a critic. I have no doubt that you have a much better idea on how to proceed somewhere in your brains. Why don't you produce your own answer? Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 14:19
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    @Magisch I'm a half-deaf, autistic, learning disabled, diabetic, decrepit old man. If I can do it, anyone can. Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 14:32
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    @Horat I do have talents, but I owe everything to my stubbornness and drive. After my stroke, I was told I'd never again be able to work in my field if I was to be able to work at all. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it. I'm not remarkable in any way other than a dogged refusal to give up. It's tough, believe me, I know. I came all the way back from being crippled and homeless. This is not a boast about myself, but an example, If I can come back, so can you. Believe in yourself, and you can do anything. Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 21:36

Remember you are not alone; many have been in your shoes and I would suggest reaching out to any help groups related to your disability. Good idea to go to your area's Dept. of Labor as they have all kinds of resources to help. Get references from people who know you and who can say what talents they see; after all, employers are also looking for real people with human talents, such as dependable, able to adapt to new processes, team player, ethical, hard working, etc. Although that in itself may not be the requirements of the job, someone is looking for those traits and if the job is not too complicated, may hire you based on that. Possibly use a recruiter to help...


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