One Tuesday I abandoned my mail cart during my rounds at Cooley Dickinson to escort a couple to their destination in the hospital.
Later, on a break, I ran into them in the coffee shop and they thanked me again. “You don’t get paid for doing this?” the man asked as we chatted. “Not in cash,” I told him. He shook his head, I assume in disbelief.
In 2009 my husband had been a patient in Cooley Dickinson for three different procedures. One morning during a particularly difficult stint in the critical care unit, I was huddled in a corner of the coffee shop trying to lose myself in a book and a cup of tea.
A woman in a pink smock brought over my breakfast and put it down and asked “How are you this morning?” Without looking up I mumbled “He’s a little better today thanks.” “That’s great,” she said, “but I asked how YOU are.” As I looked up at her, the stress of the past several days welled up as tears, set free by gratitude that someone was focusing on me for that moment and understood what I was going through.
That day I decided to be a volunteer. I had been fortunate to be able to retire a few years earlier from a job that I had loved for nearly two decades, but not so much by then. I had been keeping busy catching up on reading, gardening, putting on weight, taking the occasional cooking class and writing poetry, but feeling a bit unfocused and marginalized – that sense that I believed I had been doing meaningful work all those years but when I pulled my hand out of the bucket of water, I hadn’t even left a ripple.
When I went for my intake interview at the hospital, the volunteer director made several suggestions based on my résumé which included many years in nonprofit public relations. I told her I didn’t want to work with people, handle money, or talk on the phone. Other than that I was open.
She sort of stammered that there was an opening in the transportation department for a mail delivery volunteer. Perfect, I said. The intake and training process was more rigorous what we’ve witnessed recently for federal appointees: CORI check, references, vaccination records, plus training in security, infection prevention, HIPPA regulations, and diversity.
For the past seven years I have delivered mail throughout the hospital every Tuesday morning, racking up more than 1,000 hours and the knowledge, that at least on that one day a week, I would easily achieve my 10,000-step goal on my Vivofit. I have gotten to know staff throughout the hospital by name and feel that I am helping out an important support department by freeing them up to work with patients. I also feel empowered when my name badge opens doors marked “Employees Only,” although I’ve finally stopped saying “Open Sesame” every time I do so.
Around the same time, I began volunteering for Dakin Humane Society, transporting animals and supplies between Springfield and Leverett a couple times a month. It is gratifying to see volunteers walking dogs regardless of the weather, cleaning cages, cuddling frightened animals, and doing so many other jobs for this amazing organization which has nearly 800 volunteers providing support for its dedicated staff. I especially admire those who foster animals in their homes until they can be put up for adoption.
My friend and I are volunteer land stewards with the Kestrel Trust. We choose a lovely day or two in spring or fall and traipse around “our” two properties armed with a sophisticated GPS, camera, notebook and trash bags, checking boundaries, reporting anything amiss — trash, damaged signs, fallen limbs blocking trails. As we walk along the street picking up discarded fast-food containers, losing lottery tickets and nip bottles, we joke that passing motorists must assume we are two elderly women performing community service to work off a DUI.
Perhaps one of my most gratifying jobs has been on the scholarship committee for the Valley Press Club which provides financial support for high school seniors pursuing an education in journalism. Each year I get to meet a crop of bright high school seniors, who have the same idealistic expectations about becoming journalists and making a difference in the world that my fellow students and I shared in the 1960s and ‘70s. Their creed is the First Amendment. Most answer our questions about the role of the media today thoughtfully and wisely. It’s gratifying to see that social media and the 24-hour news cycle hasn’t affected their inherent idealism.
I’ve also been fortunate to have several ad hoc volunteer jobs – a search committee for the new executive director of one organization, a strategic planning committee for another. Hesitant to accept those jobs, once I got to the table I realized I had both wisdom and experience to offer. A good cure for feeling marginalized.
I feel that most of my volunteer work is “light” by comparison to those volunteers who do human service work – the hospice volunteers, those who work in shelters and survival centers, those who mentor young people or prisoners, the ones whose photos we see in the newspaper on holidays providing meals to others when they could be home with their own families. And the animal welfare volunteers who bring tiny orphaned fluffballs into their homes and get up to feed them every two hours, providing nurturing and support until they can survive and thrive.
I have a friend who volunteers doing literacy training for new Americans. He has had students from China, Brazil and Russia, many of whom he has kept in touch with. He has shared their stories with me over glasses of wine and I have been privileged to meet some of them at his annual solstice parties. He admits he learns as much from them as they do from him. Another friend volunteered in local schools when her children were young even though she was working full time. Now that they are grown, she volunteers in our local library.
Being married to a former union steward, I am very aware that, as a volunteer, I will not do a job that should belong to a paid staff member, nor should any organization expect that. I parted company with one organization when they asked me to take on what was essentially a job doing their public relations, a position that should have been filled by at least a part-time, paid employee.
I’m always surprised when I run into a retiree who complains they are bored. With the myriad needs and opportunities available in our community, I find that hard to imagine. My schedule is at least as full as when I worked full time. And I still find time to garden and write poetry.
Excuse me. It’s Tuesday. I have to get ready for work now.
Marianne Gambaro, of Belchertown, is a poet and writer who had careers as a journalist and in public relations before becoming a volunteer. April 23 to 29 is Volunteer Appreciation Week when organizations recognize and honor their volunteers through awards and events.