“Everybody can be great... because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
-Martin Luther King
Deirdre, 54, a Swansea native, works full time. Since her children are now grown up and on their own, Deirdre has been thinking about how she might be able to give more of her time to her community, not knowing exactly where she was needed or what she would do. She was open to volunteering, and an opportunity came along that fit perfectly. SMILES, a mentoring agency based in New Bedford, matches adult volunteer “mentors” with school-aged “mentees” to spend time together during the school-week, in a supervised setting.
Although the time commitment adds up to just a little more than one hour a week, including driving back and forth to Hayden-MacFadden, the elementary school where Deirdre mentors, the rewards filter throughout the rest of Deirdre’s week. “I wake up and think, ahh, Friday (her day to mentor at Hayden MacFadden). I get one hour of sweetness in my work week.” The sweetness comes in the form of an eight-year old girl, a vivacious third grader; for the majority of the hour Deirdre and the girl take turns reading to each other.
“What I love about SMILES is that it’s highly organized. They are so prepared. It’s all about the child; the whole 45 minutes, it’s just for me and her.” Deirdre had to go through initial training that explained the role of the mentors, as well as the boundaries set by SMILES. For example, SMILES provides every child with a gift of a book, and they discourage outside gifts from mentors – they want to keep everything equal. Should a mentor and mentee feel that they want to spend more time together, say at a baseball game or a family barbecue, and forge a longer-term connection, SMILES and the Big Brother/Big Sister program collaborates to make that happen, with the stipulation of additional training.
When Deirdre relocated for work last year, away from Swansea and into the city, she noticed, “a higher number of children apparently on their own,” and “moms looking tired.” Having been a mother of three young children herself, she had empathy for that particular dilemma. “Everyone has something to give,” she says. “I love that SMILES is one on one. You really do feel like you’re making a difference. At the end of the session, when the kids line up to go, you get that one last look from your child – it just brightens your day.”
SMILES is one organization that welcomes volunteers willing to commit themselves to one hour a week, but opportunities for volunteering time and energy abound in the South Coast region. Usually, people volunteer because they have a particular passion – the arts, the environment, the elderly, etc. The trick to finding a situation that fits your interests and availability is to let people know you are willing to help! As soon as you voice that out loud, you’ll have many opportunities from which to choose.
For example, say you love decorating. You simply love to plan events. Some organizations accept short-term volunteers to help organize events; each member of a planning committee has a particular role to play in ensuring a successful fundraiser, with the director of the organization usually at the helm. Your job might be to generate excitement and get the word out through hanging posters or drafting press releases, or to make sure there are enough flowers on the tables the night of the event. The benefits of being on a committee are improved social connections: often volunteers will host planning “lunch meetings” at their own homes, or meet at a restaurant to mix volunteer “business” with pleasure.
No matter what you decide to do, your role as a volunteer should play on your strengths and interests. By its very definition “volunteer” means: you want to be there. Surely the rewards are not relegated to the organization to which one volunteers: giving your time, talents and energy for free, without seeking a reward, can bring unexpected benefits.
Community Nurse & Hospice Care, based in Fairhaven, is one organization that invites volunteers with a variety of interests. “Indirect” volunteers may organize and execute a spring fundraiser to bolster the organization’s efficacy in a particular area. “Direct” volunteers work to alleviate the burden on families by working more closely with Hospice patients. Direct volunteering, in this case, naturally requires a greater time commitment because of the required training and screening process. It can be intense and it’s not for everyone, but it’s a wonderful way to give back.
As Clare Healy Foley, Executive Director of Community Nurse & Hospice Care, explains, “A lot of our volunteers are retired people who want to give back after their own experience with Home Care or Hospice. They have been affected in some way by what we do. There are many ways to get involved; some people may not feel comfortable being a Direct volunteer, but they will go, for example, to the North Dartmouth Mall (and attend a community outreach event). We really value all our volunteers.”
Community Nurse & Hospice Care hosts many events throughout the year, such as the upcoming Great Golf Ball Drop & Gala at the Kittansett Club in Marion on May 11, 2012. They are always looking for new volunteers to help them in their mission of providing quality, skilled health care in a timely manner to patients and family at home.
Big Brother/Big Sister is perhaps the oldest and most well-known of all the volunteer organizations. Big Brother/Big Sister is predicated on the long-term commitment of the volunteer and his or her relationship with a younger person for whom the volunteer is a role model. Big Brothers and Sisters are adults of all ages – from new college-graduates to retirees. In the best of circumstances, the Big Brother or Sister is a reliable constant in a young person’s life.
Specifically, the commitment of a Big Brother or Sister is just 4 hours a month, for a minimum commitment of one year. Time spent with your little brother or sister might be after school or on a leisurely Saturday afternoon (parent-permission dependent), once a month. Currently, and at any given time, there are at least 100 names on the waiting list for a Big Brother or Sister. Parents can refer their own children to be on the list for a Big Brother or Sister, and so can teachers, counselors, or Child & Family Services.
Generally, volunteers are matched with a child of the same gender, aged 7-14. They are expected to give the child one on one attention, but are encouraged to do free or inexpensive things with the child, and not to give expensive gifts. “But some volunteers do spend money on their little brother or sister, and many do take the child to their family gatherings and barbecues, and that’s okay too,” says Deanna Bodeau, Program Coordinator of the Big Brother/ Big Sister program for Child & Family Services in New Bedford. “Especially in the beginning, though, we really do encourage that one on one.”
How many of us can spare four hours a month, and give of ourselves to a child who may be searching for someone to show them what they can aspire to be when they grow up: someone who cares about others, someone with talents, energy, and compassion to share?
I ask, “Is there ever a time when there are only a few names on the waiting list?” (because I hate to think of a child wanting for attention, and because I am an eternal optimist).
“Not really,” Deanna answers, “because as soon as we place one child with a Big Brother or Sister, there is another one referred to our office.” And so the ebb and flow of giving continues, a never-ending need for volunteers, as the ebb and flow of consuming has become second nature to us as U.S. citizens. It would be nice to focus for a while on generating new seeds of kindness and increasing the options in a child’s life, by modeling what is possible.
The simple act of spending four hours a month with a child during his/her formative years undoubtedly has the capability of reframing the whole outlook on a young person’s life, and at the very best inspiring the child to be as productive and forward-thinking as the Big Brother or Sister who guided her to see the world anew.
Stacie Charbonneau Hess serves in her community as a volunteer, most recently as Vice Chair of the AHA! Project, a monthly arts & culture event that invites the public to take part, for free, in the artistic community of downtown New Bedford.
For more information about the organizations mentioned in this article please contact:
SMILES: Call (508) 999-9300 or email email@example.com
Big Brother/Big Sister: Call the Program Coordinator Deanna Bodeau at (508) 990-0894
Community Nurse & Hospice Care: (508) 992-6278 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Trustees of Reservations welcomes volunteers of every age and skill level to assist in its outdoor programs. Here’s what’s coming up in March:
Nest Box Building
Date: March 3, 2012
Location: Watuppa Reservation Headquarters
Cost: $15 per box taken home.
Help to improve bluebird habitat by building a nest box you can take home with you or donate to our nest box program. The populations of these beautiful birds have been in decline due to a shortage of natural nesting cavities, and competition from non-native species. By helping to build well-designed nesting boxes, participants can encourage the return of these birds and improve the biodiversity of our region.
Bluebird Monitor Training
Date: March 10, 2012
Location: Westport Town Farm
The open fields of the Westport Town Farm provide an ideal nesting habitat for rare grassland birds such as Eastern Bluebirds. Volunteers are needed to monitor nest boxes regularly during the spring and early summer at locations in Fall River, Westport, Dartmouth, and Rochester.
Come learn how you can participate in this ongoing project to bring back the Blues.
For these and upcoming opportunities, contact (508) 636-4693 x13 or email: email@example.com
(information from the Trustees of Reservations website: www.ttor.org)