Posts tagged ‘volunteering’

Volunteering is a Gift You Give Yourself

Volunteering is a gift we can give ourselves that can also improve the lives of others. It is a win-win situation with huge implications for both parties. When I volunteer or do something nice for someone I feel happy, almost to the point of giddiness. Before the invention of the Fast Pass for tolls, we would often pay the toll for the car behind us. My children and I would giggle about this gesture, a cheap happiness booster for only $1.00!

I have to admit that all of my volunteer efforts are completely selfish, starting with the adoption of 4 special needs children. People who say I’m “a saint” or “so very special” for doing this are completely wrong. I do it because it benefits me. I get 4 wonderful, if not troubled, children to love and who love me. Despite their many problems, I know that if they were anywhere else, their problems would be much worse. Seeing any improvement in them is a joy, and knowing that I had something to do with that is extremely satisfying. Additionally, I HATE to clean house, so if I have the work of caring for 4 children, then I certainly don’t have time to clean. See? Win-win for me!

I have volunteered with a recreational group of adults with disabilities for 30 years. It is a wonderful group! I do not have to worry about wearing make-up or dressing fashionably because they accept me as I am, as I care for them. I have 50 great friends! We have a bowling league every Monday, and an activity to follow, such as Bingo, a guest speaker, chair dancing, Yoga just to mention a few. We take 2 inexpensive trips together annually. We have been to Disney World, Penn Dutch, New York and Radio City Music Hall, Niagra Falls, Montreal, New Hampshire and more trips too numerous to mention. This is great for the organization’s members because they can have the support they need to travel. I make the arrangements for a motor coach with a wheelchair lift so that our friends in wheelchairs are able to join us. We stay at accessible hotels. The group is great and helps each other, thus proving my theory that almost everyone can volunteer. We have people who are blind who push people in wheelchairs. (The person in the wheelchair acts as the sighted guide!) We have people who are deaf who are sighted guides for the blind. We have people who are developmentally delayed carrying bowling balls for individuals in wheelchairs. It is a wonderful, supportive group. We send each other birthday cards. We have a great social outlet that is entirely dependent upon volunteers. We are so “tight” that when I was pregnant with my oldest son, they threw a shower for me, and they gave me all items I could use so I could bring my son on trips with them…portable crib, stroller, travel size baby lotion and baby powder. At the age of 4 months, my son first started attending this group, and he traveled and volunteered with us until he was a teenager. When my other 4 children were adopted, they similarly came with me and this group, and volunteered to the best of their ability. They loved to help the developmentally delayed play Bingo, and they delighted when their “friend” won! They have learned to be happy in the success of others. They have all provide sighted guide assistance for the blind, pushed wheelchairs, carried bowling balls and assisted in any way needed.

My children have been raised to be conscious of the needs of others. My older son, Francis, is legally blind. That did not stop him from volunteering. In high school he became and Eagle Scout by organizing a collection of 5,000 pairs of eyeglasses which were donated to the local Lions Club. He volunteered at a local child care center and loved playing with the little children. He was an assistant Sunday School teacher and a volunteer annually at a camp for the blind and Bible School. In college he volunteered out of state several times for Habitat for Humanity. He might not have been able to see to pound in a nail, but he was strong and completely capable of carrying heavy materials and helping to hold walls up. He also helped to coordinate several food drives and walk-a-thons at his college. Currently, after obtaining his PhD from Cambridge University in England, he has his dream job of designing computers for people with disabilities.

My daughter, Dinora, adopted at an early age from Guatemala also joined us weekly and on trips with the recreational group and she also was an Assistant Sunday School Teacher. She and I did some fund raising to help open the soup kitchen, Tus Manos, in Antigua, Guatemala. Her most rewarding adventure was to spend the summer after high school graduation in Guatemala to help open the soup kitchen. I was there on the actual opening day, and the joy was overwhelming. Dinora had on an apron and a huge smile as she passed out food. She made sure to make eye contact and was friendly with everyone by giving them a pat on the back. Even the individuals who were disheveled and barefoot coming through the line with their eyes glancing downwards were rewarded by the accepting, compassionate friendliness of those passing out food. When they left the line, tray of food full, their eyes were looking upwards, often filled with tears. Dinora said to me she was thrilled to come and help out “her people” because she had led such a privileged life and they had not. I had brought with me a collection of new flannel shirts (on sale so cheaply I could not pass them up.) Dinora and I passed them out and the men, in tattered clothes, would humbly bow and thank us. It was a wonderful, uplifting trip. We traveled in a beautiful country and met many beautiful people who touched our hearts forever.

My son, Steven, who has Attention Deficit Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder also attended the recreational group as an infant and toddler. Despite his disability and limited social skills, he developed compassion for people with all types of disabilities from all walks of life. When he was about 8 I remember traveling with him in downtown Boston where there are many beggars on the streets and in the subway. That child had to give money to each and every one! He gave out all of his own money and then asked me for more. As we were about to get on the last subway he saw a disheveled man playing the guitar and he asked for more money. I had no more dollars to give and he said he couldn’t get on the subway until we gave this man something, so we both dug in our pockets to look for change, and managed to scrape up 37 cents which he ran over and put in the gentleman’s bucket. Now, at the age of 17, he uses his obsession with reptiles to volunteer at a reptile education center. He stands at the entrance with a huge boa constrictor, python, turtle or alligator, allowing people to pet the reptile and answering all of their questions. He may not be good at social interactions, but he found his own niche in which to volunteer.

Currently, my 15 year old son, who has Dissociative Identity Disorder from years of early childhood abuse, uses his “game show host” personality to call for the monthly Bingo game with the recreational group. He is HILARIOUS! He puts so much humor and energy into the Bingo games that this is their favorite activity. He also uses some of his own money to buy little Bingo prizes when he sees something he thinks they might like. In return, he gets their acceptance and love. He likewise calls Bingo games for a local nursing home. As a boy who desperately needs affection and acceptance due to his disability, it would normally be inappropriate for a 15 year old boy to hug adults. However his Bingo groups are comprised of many adults who have no family and no one else to care for them. They need his hugs and affection as much as he needs theirs. It is a win-win situation.  He also volunteers at his school as an “Autism Buddy”, a social group where the high school students provide activities and social interaction for younger children with autism.

My 13 year old daughter who is deaf and has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder loves to come to the recreational group so she can be a sighted guide. She has taken great pleasure in her ability to do this. She regularly guides women who are blind into the ladies room, showing them where the stall is. She has helped to feed individuals who need assistance, gently wiping their mouths if food drips down. She also volunteers in the same nursing home as my son. Her job, however, is to clean out the bird cage, (which she LOVES,) and to play Rummy with the residents. They are buoyed by her youth and enthusiasm and she loves it because she is helping.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity my children have had is having an uncle, (my brother) as a relative. My brother was born with Rubella Syndrome in 1951, He is developmentally delayed, legally blind, has a severe speech impediment and has a hearing impairment which has progressed to profound deafness. He became schizophrenic when he was 18, and this has gotten worse, with most of his conversation having to do with his rides on the Starship Enterprise. His head is greatly misshapen, he has only 2 teeth in the front, one side of his mouth droops down, he drools, and he has difficulty walking around and frequently trips without a strong arm to hold onto, My children adore him! He generally lives in a group home but I pick him up on Saturdays and holidays to spend a day with our family. He is greeted by a “Hi, Uncle Steve”, a hug and a smile by them all. The children are used to being a sighted guide for him, and will sometimes argue over who gets to do it. My brother is very easy to please. His greatest joy is riding the escalators at the mall, getting a diet coke and, to make it a perfect day, having a piece of cheesecake or a sundae. We took him yesterday to the mall, riding around for 1/2 hour on the escalators and going to the movies. He got his soda at the movies and afterwards we stopped for dinner and cheesecake. He was ecstatic! When we brought him back to the group home, he clapped his hands and told them it was the best day he ever had! Seeing someone so happy over simple pleasures is extremely humbling. Although caring for him is not in itself “volunteering”, it contains the same components. We do something to make his life better and we are rewarded by his happiness and joy. Money can’t buy the sense of satisfaction that brings to everyone involved.

In summary, to volunteer is a gift we give to ourselves as much as the gift we give to others. Most people, including children and people with disabilities, have the ability to volunteer. It is an extreme self-esteem booster and makes life much more fulfilling. I highly encourage it.

A Week At Camp, the Blind Leading the Blind

I have just unpacked upteen boxes and suitcases from a week of running a summer camp for children who are blind.  Lest you think this past week was a chore, it was not. It was a week of pure joy.  A week of watching months of work come to fruition. A week of watching young souls meet new friends, try new things, and, in some cases, mature beyond belief. Children whose parents thought they would be homesick and crying to come home at night, instead spent the night playing games with other children.  Sure, the children are blind and severely visually impaired, but they are still children.  The lure of learning how to play blackjack on Braille cards, or chess on an adapted chessboard, or Connect Four, Braille Uno, or Monopoly in large print and Braille, won out over going home to their lonesome bedrooms at home.  Who can argue with fun?

This was my 23rd year doing the camp. I started it when my son, Francis, was five years old.  In our state, as in most others, children who are blind or visually impaired go to their neighborhood public schools with accommodations made so they can be educated with their fully sighted peers.  It is a wonderful concept, except for the fact that the child may often feel alone.  I started this camp so the children who are blind can get together with other children with the same disability and learn that they are not alone.  There are many other children just like them!

We have been fortunate to rent a wheelchair accessible retreat center. (Some children who are blind are also mobility impaired.)  Although I call it “camp”, it has bedrooms with 4 beds, (linens and all,) each with its own bathroom (with hot water!)  There is air conditioning, carpeted floors, and a great room where all meals are cooked by a full kitchen staff.  There is also plenty of room for camp activities.  I know it does not sound like your typical “camp”, but it is as close to nature as this little old social worker cares to get.

The children range in age from six to eighteen, although theoretically the campers top age is 13.  Any camper who has shown active participation in the camp, we hire as a junior counselor when they reach the age of 14. I learned this “technique” to deal with the teenagers years ago when we found ourselves with a large group of teen campers who rebelled against the camp activities and wanted to just hang out.  They would sit back and not want to participate in the dance, the games, the swimming and so forth, effectively using the time just to socialize.  I am not saying that socializing is a bad thing; in fact it is a much needed activity for these teens, but just not the purpose of our camp. So, we hire them to work with the younger children.  Our state Department of Vocational Rehabilitation actually pays us to use this experience as a job training opportunity.  For those counselors who are totally blind, we provide a sighted guide for them, but they are expected to do the actual work.  Is there anything more valuable than seeing a fifteen year old girl, totally blind from birth, working with a six year old girl who is also totally blind? The campers learn that despite their disability, they have valuable skills, and they learn these skills from the junior counselors.  We have had many junior counselors go on to be head counselors, and also onto college into teaching and human service positions based on their initial experience at camp.  (We also have one young man who has become a certified EMT after working at our camp as our Medic for 8 years.) Because these young people are working at camp, they are learning valuable work skills and building a resume, and I have been asked to write many recommendations for these hard working, eager to learn, teenagers.

The activities at the camp itself are modified for children with vision impairments.  Besides the games mentioned previously, we have many group activities.  My favorites are our “Olympic” events.  The groups generally include one head counselor, one junior counselor and four campers, make up the “Olympic teams”.  We have many activities over the week that enhance the group dynamic, but also teach the children that winning isn’t everything.  While the teams make up the audience, one team performs the event while the others cheer them on.  It isn’t winning or losing that is the goal; it is the camaraderie, good sportsmanship, and support of others that counts.  Events this year included the ball in the basket toss.  A beeper is put in a laundry basket, and teams are asked to throw the balls in.  The team that gets the most balls in wins.  Easy enough one would think.  But to make it a little bit harder, and because some of the children have some limited vision, we blindfold everyone. Not quite so easy.  We also had a shooting event.  Water guns.  Turkey roaster pan hanging from a tree. Me banging on the pan so they can tell where the pan is located.  Lots of fun, but the most fun was seeing where on my body they would shoot me when they missed the turkey pan! Unfortunately, they did not get any extra points for shooting the camp director!  Another very humorous event was a twist on the old standby game…the dressing game.  In a laundry basket there are a pair of pants, a man’s long sleeve dress shirt, a tie and a hot.  The “athlete” is supposed to put the clothes on and race down to the person at the other end of the line, who is wildly calling their name so they can find them.  Getting to the person is the easy part, putting the clothes on, blindfolded, is the hard part, especially when the person before you has left one of the sleeves in the shirt inside out.  Or trying to put the tie on after the hat was on their head.  Or holding up the ill fitting pants while they ran. In this game, none of the audience could cheer the athlete on because they were laughing so hard.  We also had a pizza box challenge.  For this Olympic event, I put up a yellow plastic rope tied to a chair where the event started.  Using a talking caution cone which would sound an alarm when you came near it, the athletes could find their way along the rope and turn at the caution cone, heading back to the start.  Carrying a pizza box.  Then 2 pizza boxes, then 3, then 4, then 5.  The team that completed it in the shortest amount of time won the event.  There were several other events to the Olympics with the purpose of having fun and fostering a team spirit.  Of course, when the awards ceremony came, each of the teams had won at least one event, so everyone won a medal for their efforts, (a Brailled, bright, changing color medal with the name of the Olympics in large print.)

Another activity we do at camp, of course, is arts and crafts.  Everyone painted frames.  EVERYONE painted frames.  You do not have to be sighted to paint.  After they were painted, we had a wide variety of doo dads with which they could decorate their frames.  Tactile, three-dimensional stickers which were easy for everyone to use.  My favorite was the young camper who painted her frame like a flower and then stuck bees all around it.  Although the children may be blind, they still like to show off the group picture that will be placed in their frames.  A picture of all of their friends.  Lots of friends.  All who have vision problems similar to theirs.

We have also always done a group art project, one that hangs in our office at work and two that we give away to important state administrators who support us in this camp endeavor.  This year, we did rainbows.  The colors of the rainbow were outlined in puffy paint so that the campers could tell where one color ended and another began.  Then, everyone put their fingerprints to fill in the colors.  Hundreds of big and little fingerprints.  After the fingerprints had dried, we then had them glue on tactile items of the same color.  For example, for the red color I had real little birds, (well, not REAL little birds, but little birds about 1/3 inch high,) apples, hearts, gemstones, (fake, of course) and so forth.  For the orange color we had plastic oranges, flowers cut from a branch of artificial flowers, glitter orange stars, and so forth. This activity not only creates a beautiful 3 dimensional rainbow, but it also helps the campers with color identification.  Many of them did not know that a heart was red or that apples could be red, green or yellow.  (I had a variety of colors of apples just to demonstrate the point.) Someone glued clouds from pillow material, and someone put down a tissue sun.  It came out incredibly awesome!

I feel very strongly that children, ALL children, should volunteer and give back to their community.  When you have a disability, often you get used to others doing things for YOU.  I need these children, as I’ve taught my own children, to know that anyone is capable of giving back, of volunteering, of doing something good for others.  As our special project this year, we used Ziploc bags.  On one side, the children decorated them with tactile stickers, ribbons, lettering and glitter. The fronts of all of their bags say “Thank You”, in print and in Braille.  On the back of their bags, they could choose the stickers of their choice…monster trucks, flowers, spiders, ice cream items, a soldier, and so forth.  Then we took the children to the local dollar store and gave them each $7 so they could buy 6 items themselves to fill the bag with toiletry items for soldiers in Iraq. From this lesson, we learned about the brave men and women who are fighting for their country.  How it is hot and sandy there and there are no Walmarts or drug stores where they can buy the basic necessities such as soap and toothpaste.  The children each made their own thoughtful list of items they wanted to buy.  They learned the $7 bought only 6 items because there is a tax we all have to pay.  One by one, the children went into the store, shopped, and spent their money.  5 toiletry items and 1 “fun” item.  The fun items included such things lollypops, playing cards, gum, yo yos, hard candy, perfume and hair gel, (for one boy who insisted the soldier who got his bag would want to spike his hair into a mow-hawk.)  The children then came back to camp and joyously filled their bags. It was a wonderful learning experience for them, they had great fun doing it, and they learned that anyone can do something for someone else.  Once completed, we had 50 bags stuffed to the brim to donate to Give2TheTroops, Inc., which sends such bags to Iraq, Not too shabby of a day!

Many other wonderful experiences happened at camp this year, and I will write more at another time.  Right now, I am pooped from all of the unpacking, and my bed is calling. I did not see much of my bed during camp for some reason…

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