Using Grief as an Inspiration to Help Others

One of the sweetest people I have ever met is Mary Stansell.  Mary was a coworker who worked in a respite care program for elderly people with memory loss, from Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia.  Mary did not just work her 8am to 5pm shift.  She left her house at 6am to drive across town to pick up a few of the program participants whose loved one was having trouble getting to the program.  On the weekends, she provided free respite care in her home for some families who were struggling.  At the end of the day, if a family caregiver was late leaving work, she would wait, on her own time, until they arrived and not charge the late fee.  And she never complained.

See, Mary is a tough cookie.  She left her southern home on a Greyhound bus.  With the clothes she could fit in her suitcase, along with her gun, and her four young children.  She escaped violence and fear for hope and peace in California.  Along the way, she met and married the love of her life, Charles.  He was an intelligent, educated man, who she loved with all of her heart.  They enjoyed dancing, laughing, loving, and living life together.  Then one day, Charles was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and the slow, declining abilities and memory loss would follow.

But it was not Mary’s way to grieve over it.  And, in the plan for her husband’s care as time and the disease progresses, she was determined to be his primary caregiver.  She would do whatever she had to do to care for him.  So, she found work in a respite care program where Charles could attend.  She was able to keep him close while she was at work. 

She learned everything she could about the disease, and used her knowledge to help other families dealing with memory loss of a loved one.  She consoled the wife whose husband no longer recognized her face.  The son who feared his father had forgotten a wife and mother who had passed.  The daughter whose mother forgot more each day.  The caregivers who arduously provide care to a loved one in addition to working a full-time job.  Mary did these things outside of her work.  On her own time.  She lived the disease.  She loved those who fell victim to it, and she fought in the trenches alongside those who knew her pain. 

Grief from trauma, whether it is after the passing of a loved one from a terminal illness, abuse, neglect, or other experience, a great healer is volunteering to help those who are where you have been.  Some of the best and most effective volunteers are those who can empathize with people in the trenches today.  You know their fear, their hopes, their sadness, and most importantly their needs.  

We all have experienced trauma…loss of a loved one to terminal illness, aging, or accident.  Some have experienced bad childhoods, disabilities, academic struggles, and more.  Find an organization that serves a need for those today where you have been before. 

Make YOUR difference in the world…Volunteer!

Alzheimer’s Association

Full Circle 

Good Grief Center – 20 Tips for Bereavement Support

Empower Youth through Meaningful Service Learning

“Passion rebuilds the world for the youth.  It makes all things alive and significant,” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Love, First Essays.

Red Hat Ladies enjoying LBHS Senior Ball with Service Learners

Red Hat Ladies enjoying LBHS Senior Ball with Service Learners

Over the years, I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with many youth in my community through service learning.  Typically coordinated in group projects over a period of time, youth learn about a concept in the classroom or service club, identify an issue or need in the community, then develop a service solution to mitigate the problem.  My projects connected youth with actual needs of real neighbors, and included K-12 students, at-risk high school students, honors programs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Faith-Based groups, and even college students.

One of my most meaningful experiences included a year-long service learning engagement with high school students.  The group was a Public Services Small Learning Community at a high risk school that was termed “Bloodbank,” when I was in high school.   This campus is very diverse, including several languages spoken at home and is troubled by a high degree of gang activity.  It also boasts one of the most robust Navy JROTC programs in the state that helps students stay out of trouble and attend college.

A student lead committee determined that a lot of elderly people lived in the neighborhood and students voted to focus on serving local senior citizens.  The older neighborhood included areas that were 60 to 80% residents 65+ years, so this was a real application of demographics evident to students.  The group chose a series of projects relative to issues learned in class, such as disaster preparedness, home safety, and First Aid.  Two projects of note included making disaster kits for vulnerable elderly neighbors and a “Senior Ball,” for a low-income senior apartment complex.

For the disaster kits, the youth collected emergency items recommended by FEMA, assembled kits, and made home deliveries.  This included writing down contact information for family members, listing any necessary medications, and identifying a specific “go to” location in case of evacuation.  I was inspired by the passion of these students acting as stewards for the elderly, and it was apparent they KNEW they made a difference.  And of course, the seniors loved the youth attention.

Team 2 LBHS Disaster Kits Project Service Learning

Team 2 LBHS Disaster Kits Project Service Learning

The “Senior Ball” was the culminating event for a year-long adoption of a low-income senior complex.  A variety of projects throughout the year focused on these seniors, and students chose to end the year with a dance.  The students created the entire night, and I was there to watch the show.  The youth solicited donations for all materials and planned the itinerary. It was endearing to watch the kids dancing with older people who came alone.  But the real reward was to listen to the passion expressed in their reflections realizing they had the power to make a difference in the lives of others.  They were alive and very much…significant.

Service learning is a wonderful opportunity to empower youth to make a difference through service.  The links below provide additional resources on how YOU can make a difference through service learning.

Please leave a comment and share your experiences with service learning.  Make YOUR difference in the world…Volunteer!

What is Service Learning? – National Service-Learning Clearinghouse

National Dropout Prevention Center/Network – Effective Strategies Service Learning

Heifer International – Service Learning and Fundraising Programs

Leverage Baby Boomers for YOUR Volunteer Program

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Senior Volunteer Provides Security for Neighborhood Event

The early Baby Boomer generation is well into retirement and thousands more are joining them every day.  We hear so much about how the Baby Boomers will bankrupt Social Security, overwhelm the medical industry, and increase the demand for long term care.  I want to bring to light a positive note about this generation that includes my parents.  Baby Boomers are generally in better health upon retirement, have a variety of skills, and many are looking for opportunities to volunteer.  As organizations, we should be ready to welcome retirees into our volunteer base and tailor opportunities to fulfill their interests.

My grandma, who passed away last year, was a lifelong social citizen.  She was active in her community, volunteered to help those in need, and was the Chair of the Historical Society in her town until her early nineties.  When my siblings and I would visit, she was always attending meetings or volunteering with the Grange, Women’s Club, the church, or a myriad of other causes for good.  In fact, when I was in high school, she told us she was going to go back to work for a vacation because she was always busy in her community.

She was not alone.  Many retirees, equipped with a valuable skillset after a long career, have extra time to give, and are interested and willing to volunteer for causes they could not engage in while working or raising a family.  Of those who have volunteered for me, retirees are some of the most knowledgeable, skilled, diligent, committed, and dependable volunteers.  While some are limited in mobility, many volunteer activities are still possible.

I have worked with older adult volunteers from newly retired Baby Boomers to the elderly population.  There are a lot of people in this group willing and eager to make a difference.  At my old office inside of a Community Center, an all-volunteer group supported a Senior Program for socializing.  An accountant, a nun, and a nurse, all retired, coordinated all of its activities, attended by nearly 100 seniors.  Others made wellness phone calls or home visits to isolated seniors who lived alone.  One of our retired attorneys, a Stanford alumnus, volunteered legal services to the library system. Elderly volunteers who could not canvass the neighborhood for a campaign, instead made phone calls to voters.  Retirees are adopting teenagers with little expectation for a family before aging out of the system.  An old friend who recently retired, is volunteering full time for the California State Fair this summer.   The list goes on, and all of these older adults are making a difference!

If your organization benefits or can benefit from volunteers,  engage retired Baby Boomers in the work.  Develop volunteer tasks and assignments that leverage the skills of this group and grow with aging needs while cultivating their interests.  Embrace their spirit of commitment and giving to support YOUR cause.  Otherwise your organization is missing out.

Please share your experiences!  Leave a comment.  Make YOUR difference in the world…Volunteer!