Thursday, May 17, 2012

Looking for a few good men and women

I attended a Volunteer Appreciation Dinner last night at an American Legion in Newton, MA.  Springwell organizes this every year, but this is the first one I've attended.  Every once in a while it feels good to know that what you do is appreciated, although I already know that my client and friend Linda appreciates me.  She always says so in the birthday and Christmas cards she gives me.

Because I've been volunteering with Linda for 3 1/2 years, Wendy, my coordinator from Springwell, asked me to give a speech about my experience.  I culled this from various blog entries I've written and I share it here as an inducement for anyone who has a little free time they'd like to use wisely and for a good cause.  If you do have free time (or can find some--we're all busy), I urge you to try volunteering--with Springwell or one of the many reputable organizations out there. For more information, click here.

Hello, I’m Jennifer Campaniolo and I’ve been volunteering with Springwell since December 2008.  I'm what they call a "friendly visitor" (a friend asked me if they were looking for "unfriendly visitors," the kind who arrive 1/2 hour late, upturn the cat's litter box, and throw their host's purse out the window. I said I didn't think so.)

The woman I visit once a week, Linda, is in her mid-sixties, and as far as I know she has been on disability her entire adult life, and has lived in various Section 8 housing.  She was adopted as a baby and most of her family is either dead now or out-of-touch.  She started having trouble with her legs when she was young, and perhaps out of fear of what people would think or just plain denial, her family acted as if nothing was wrong, and according to Linda, never addressed the problem. The likely-treatable condition became her life sentence.

Springwell does many things to help Linda, and my weekly visits are the least of them.  Because she lives alone and is disabled, Linda has groceries delivered every Sunday and a woman comes each Wednesday to do laundry and light housework. These are all services that Springwell provides.  For someone who lives alone and doesn't go out much, every interaction she has is an important part of her day.

My friendship with Linda is not the stuff of Tuesdays with Morrie, but she is always happy to see me, which puts me at ease. My one other experience volunteering with senior citizens was with a 96 year-old woman in a rehabilitation hospital in New York City who would sometimes ignore me when I came into the room, although that could have been her bad hearing.  But sitting facing away from me on her institution-issued hospital bed, even her back seemed hostile. 

Linda, on the other hand, smiles at me when she meets me at her door. I ring her buzzer around 7PM and when I tell her who it is, she cheerfully answers "OKAY!" She meets me at the door wearing either pink or blue scrubs. She doesn't work in a hospital, she just finds them comfy. I greet her cat Maxine while Linda goes to get our two cans of seltzer water.  Every week I bring a snack for us to share, usually hummus and celery or guacamole and chips.

I thought that when I came to visit her we would play Scrabble or watch old movies or read to each other or listen to soothing music.  But she wasn't interested in any of that.  She wanted to talk.  Linda likes to talk about her love of cats (her own cat plus the many stuffed cats and cat paraphernalia with which she surrounds herself), and enjoys showing me whatever new item she has bought from a catalog or that her neighbor found for her in the basement where residents put stuff they no longer need.  

Another of her favorite topics is the arrangement of her furniture. I can always count on her to ask me if the desk lamp would look better on the table near the front door or next to the waterless electric fish tank. Would it change the aesthetic of the room to swap the display case of beanie babies with the low book shelf containing all her Dr. Phil books and John Denver CDs?

I don't think she really listens to my response. She just likes asking. Rearranging her apartment is something to do, a challenge, a never-ending project.

Because of her disability, Linda has never held a full-time job. She once volunteered at Mass General Hospital, assembling surgical tools for doctors. But that ended when she had trouble getting in and out of Boston on time.

I can see why Linda is endlessly moving her stuff around, why she changes her phone company as frequently as her bed sheets, why she quickly returns items she orders from catalogs and goes back and forth between a Verizon cell phone and a Jitterbug. These are the otherwise mundane tasks that keep her occupied and engaged. Granted, changing phone plans is one of many chores that busy people dread. Who wants to spend an afternoon talking by phone to customer service? Linda does. And if she gets a good rep on the phone it means the difference between a bad day and a great one.

"Some people have jobs to think about." She once said to me in a moment of astute self-awareness, "All I have to think about all day is my furniture and things."

When we're talking, I try to be fully present for her. I look her straight in the eye to let her know I'm interested, even when she repeats herself, which is often. Through my visits with Linda, I'm learning patience. I'm learning to listen, with no expectations or agenda of my own. I have to remember that it's her life, and I'm just there to be a witness.

We all need a witness for our lives.  Although I still fill out a time sheet for Springwell, I consider Linda a friend and assume she feels the same.  I typically leave her apartment in a good mood. Though on paper we don't have a lot in common--she doesn't like reading, watching movies, or cooking, for example, and I am not a fan of John Denver or Pillow Pets--we still find plenty to talk about and there's hardly a moment of silence when we get together.

And let's face it--there's also that little glow of the do-gooder that we all experience when we volunteer or commit some random act of kindness.

It's really true that you can get out of volunteering as much (or more) than you put in.