It’s a question that is often asked. With people busier now than in the past, taking care of families, trying to make ends meet, working more often for less money, keeping up with social media and trying harder than ever to take care of all their other responsibilities, it is harder than ever to find free time. So why spend what little free time we have volunteering when we have so many other options? Normally here is where the standard answers are inserted. It’s fulfilling. It’s the right thing to do. The community needs your help now more than ever. It sets a good example for your kids. There are others that we have all heard that could be added. These are all true, very true, but they don’t encompass what the true essence of volunteering or simply using your time to benefit others is all about. What it really comes down to is the impact you have on individuals (human and non-human) and the impact they have on you. That special connection between you and another person, another animal or the planet we all share. That connection is more powerful than we realize. Seeing the impact you can have on another life or lives and feeling the impact on yourself from those same lives is a force that has few equals. So as someone who loves to volunteer and has been on both sides of this force I think the best way to answer the question of why volunteer is to share some stories of the connections I have made. The stories of those I have come in contact with can relay the value of volunteering more than any words I can come up with.
There are many stories I could share about people I’ve met that are living on the street, abused animals that (although they have no reason to) show an amazing ability to forgive and love, mentally and physically disabled people who show courage that we can only dream of having or children that have been put in dire circumstances by their parents who just keep overcoming obstacles no matter how many are put in front of them. The following are just a few.
The scoffed at homeless man: I was walking the streets of downtown Charlotte, NC passing out bags that had bottled water, soup, crackers and fruit bars to people who were living on the streets. This particular day I wasn’t working with any organization, just headed down there on a Saturday by myself when it was hot outside and I knew people could use some food and water. Some of the people had come to recognize me now and we sometimes will chat a while about whatever comes to mind. While talking to one of the men about overcrowding at the shelter I looked down a side street and saw a man asleep, laid out on the sidewalk with his belongings strewn around him. I started down the street to see if I he wanted some food and water. As I went a well-dressed couple came up to him, stepped over him and proceeded to scoff and whisper to each other. Then turn as they went by so the man could tell him to ‘Get a job!’ and they both laughed. He woke up, but didn’t react. As I approached I said, “Hey man, how you doing?”. “I’m not bothering anybody! What do you want?” he said with a look like he wanted to rip into me. “Sorry, didn’t mean to bother you. Just seeing if you wanted some water and something to eat.” He looked at me for a minute and his face transformed from angry to friendly. “Yea, that’d be great.” After looking through the bag he looked up to me and said with a smile, “Sometimes a shitty day can turn into a great day real quick.” About an hour later I was walking back to my car and saw the man again. This time he was up walking with all of his stuff. We made eye contact and waved to each other. I don’t know where he was headed, but he was headed somewhere and he had a smile on his face. So did I.
Mr. Johnson: My dog, Lucky, and I often go to senior centers in my area where we visit with seniors and other residents. Many of these people used to have dogs or other pets before having to move to the senior centers because of medical issues. They really love to see and interact with the dogs (and what dog doesn’t love a lot of attention). The doctors tell us about how the dogs bring people out of depression, improve attitudes and how important it is for people to get some individual attention when there are so few nurses and so many patients. Some have no families or visitors and spend most of their days bedridden and watching TV. One day Lucky and I went into a room to see a patient. His roommate was Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson was confined to a wheelchair, didn’t talk and was unable to even move. He was just propped up in front of the small TV where he spent most of his days. We weren’t there to see him because of his condition, but to visit the other patient staying in the room. He didn’t react at all when we entered. Lucky visited with the patient we came to see and then we stepped back while some other dogs were taking their turn. I was just looking on when out of the corner of my eye I noticed something. Lucky was sitting about a foot from Mr. Johnson when I see a finger move. Just a slight movement, but I knew I saw it move. He was reaching for Lucky! I moved Lucky over and put his head under Mr. Johnson’s hand. When his hand made contact with Lucky’s head it was like the energy from Lucky’s body flowed into him. Suddenly his hand moved freely over Lucky’s head, down the back of his neck and then around under his jaw. The man who couldn’t move now was moving his hand and arm fluidly. The rest of his body stayed in the same position, but I could see a slight smile come over his face as he ran his hand around Lucky’s head. Lucky seemed to sense something and leaned into him so it would be easier for him. I then turned to show everyone else what was going on only to see that everyone in the room was already watching with stunned looks on their faces. Mr. Johnson’s roommate summed up how we all felt by saying, “Wow. Never seen that before. That’s pretty cool.” Yes, it was very cool.
Injured birds: I have done some volunteering at the Carolina Raptor Center and the Carolina Waterfowl Rescue. Most of the time at these places you are doing some hard, dirty work. The first time I did this I was a little upset because I was pulling weeds. I selfishly wanted to interact with the birds, not pull weeds. Then a doctor brought out a falcon that was missing his beak because someone thought it would be funny to take a hammer and break it off. The doctor explained how he was unable to eat normally because of this and how they had brought him back to health from near death. He then brought out bird after bird that had suffered some kind of injury, almost all at the hands of man and many times on purpose. It dawned on me that I wasn’t pulling weeds. I was freeing up the doctors and other workers to do what they were there to do. Help the injured animals. Suddenly pulling weeds seemed important and my enthusiasm was renewed. Sometimes indirect help is just as important as direct help. A bird without a beak helped me to see that.
Akeem, my special swimming buddy: I had been helping coach a local Special Olympics swimming team when we had an area swimming meet. It was a great time and the kids all had a blast winning ribbons and getting to compete with other kids from all around the area. My day, however, was made by a swimmer named Akeem. He was on our team and had been coming to our practices for weeks. He didn’t talk, had muscle control issues that caused him to jerk around a lot, bite his hand occasionally when nervous and he would frequently put his face in his hands when he was uncomfortable. At practices he was much more comfortable with women so I normally did not swim with him. I always spoke to him, but never really got a reaction and he seemed uncomfortable around me. At the meet the swimmers would line up on rows of benches before their races. They would line up about 5 races deep to make sure that everyone was there in time and nobody missed their race. Most of the day I was taking swimmers down and getting them in the right spot on the benches when their races were coming up. I took Akeem down when one of his races was coming up and got him sitting in the right spot. I could see from the start he was nervous and uncomfortable. The other swimmers would be talking and laughing, but he couldn’t talk and had his face in his hands so he was pretty much by himself. He started to bite his hand and kept trying to get up and walk off. I looked around for one of the women he normally would swim with, but they were all occupied. So I went up and sat down next to him and said, “Don’t worry Akeem. I’ll sit here with you until your race starts. You are going to do great, just like in practice.” At this point I was just hoping that me being there wasn’t going to make him more uncomfortable. Then after I had been sitting there a couple of minutes, I felt him scoot over next to me, tightly wrap his arms around one of my arms and then he laid his head on my shoulder. I rested my head on top of his and we stayed like that until his race came up. He raced, got his ribbon and flashed a big smile when he got it. We swim together often at practice now and I see that smile frequently. I wonder if he knows how much his trust meant to me.
Finally, Dave: Dave is a patient at one of the senior centers Lucky and I go to, but he’s not a senior. I don’t know his exact condition, but he has the physical characteristics of someone with down syndrome. He is confined to a wheelchair and has limited movement. The first time I saw Dave was when he was in his wheelchair, sitting and staring into space in the hallway at a T intersection at the center. A group of us were there with our dogs and we all walked right by him because he looked so out of it and didn’t seem to be able to interact with others. We finished up visiting on one of the halls and we were all coming back by. Lucky was having some fun with one of the patients and we had gotten a little behind the group. As the group all walked past Dave, I noticed him sitting there and got mad that nobody had even looked in his direction when they passed. Then it dawned on me that I had done the same thing when we first went by him so I was in no position to judge. So I figured I would at least say ‘Hey’ to him as I passed. I did, but as I passed I noticed his eyes following Lucky. Not me, but he was watching Lucky closely. So I stopped and let the rest of the group go on. I took Lucky over to him and got Lucky to sit where his hand could reach Lucky’s head. He slowly started to pat Lucky’s head and I could see his blank stare turn into a smile as he looked down at Lucky. He didn’t say anything, but I was making small talk while he and Lucky were bonding. I commented on his ‘cool looking’ wheelchair, his ‘awesome’ clothes, how much Lucky liked him and things like that. After a few minutes, Lucky and I said good-bye and we started to head off down the hall. As I turned I felt a hand grab my wrist. I looked back and Dave was holding my wrist and looking me dead in the eyes. I squatted down, smiled and said, “You alright? Do you need something?” It was barely a whisper, but Dave still looking me dead in the eyes said, “Thank you”. It was not a thank you that you get from a cashier after buying something or a thank you that you get after opening the door for someone. This one was straight from the heart. I could tell by the look in his eyes and the tears that were starting to form there. “No, thank you. You just made Lucky’s day and you just made mine.” Lucky and I decided to stay with Dave for a little while longer.
I often think of Dave and the others I have met when I’m having a bad day. Suddenly my problems go away. I encourage everyone to go out and volunteer. There are Daves out there that need your help and you can have a big impact on them even through the littlest ways, but what will surprise you the most is how much of an impact they will have on you.
May 12, 2012