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.