Monday, April 18, 2011

Crossing the Finish Line

On April 16, 2010, I started my exploration in philanthropy at HAVEN — a shelter for women and children of domestic and sexual abuse in Pontiac. This past Saturday, April 16, I hit the one-year mark volunteering with area residents by picking up trash in Pontiac.

Read the story here.

In between those two dates, I have volunteered with the hungry, homeless, senior citizens and children. I even managed some time with the four-legged variety. For the most part, I did volunteer every week, with a couple of exceptions on vacation. I do wish I had blogged more and sent out volunteering tips these last couple of months. That was a failure on my part.

Regardless, I am finished. I'm not sure how I expected to feel upon finishing. I had no huge epiphanies during the year. Yes, I learned to appreciate my life more. But there were days when I wanted to be home, reading a book instead of going out for my weekly gig.

This weekend, I went to a co-worker's home for a shindig. After talking to his girlfriend, who is a first-generation U.S. citizen of Polish descent — she reminded me of something I am acutely aware of, yet benefited from the reminder.

After listening to her talk about how her parents came to America and how she grew up poor, she said, "Americans expect things to be given to them."

How true those words are. And how many times have I thought "I deserve that."

This year has taught me that life can be unfair to many, and sometimes, as fellow humans, we must lend a helping hand. The woman who gets cancer and loses her home because her insurance would not cover her treatments; the children who take backpacks of food home over the weekend so that they have something to eat;  the sweet, old Labrador-mix who no on adopts and just wants a romp outside — these stories are everywhere, and yet, many have become immune to them.

I love my soapbox, and I plan on using it now. So, if you're not in the mood for a lecture, I advise you to stop reading. You've been warned.

Nothing annoys me more than people who complain about the world's state of affairs, yet do nothing to make a difference. I could be given a gold medal in whining — just ask me how I feel about the weather today (it's snowing outside). My husband should be given a gold medal for listening to me whine.

Back to the point: Yes, the economy sucks, gas prices soar, the U.S. military is led into more conflicts abroad than I care to remark on. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The world will end in 2012. There is plenty of fodder to complain about.

It's cliche, but true: Change starts at home. Instead of carping about all of the problems in the world, consider tutoring a child in your neighborhood or serving a meal to someone in need. If you don't want to give your time (and trust me, no one is too busy to donate time every once in awhile) please, don't complain to me. You will not find me sympathetic. 

This weekend, as I interviewed volunteers for a story for The Oakland Press, I met a homeless woman who hopped off the bus from Detroit to help clean up the streets because she said she wants to be a help to society. I am continually amazed by the giving nature and optimism of others. Perhaps what I most gained from this experience is appreciation and admiration for my peers who make their lives a story of giving back.

Because I cannot name every person I met, (but you know who you are) I want to let you know how much I appreciate all that you do for your communities. You inspired me.

While the project may be over, I will continue to volunteer (though, not on a weekly basis). I seem to have found a rhythm — I already have two events lined up for the near future.

If anything, I hope this blog some positive messages about people making positive change, and hopefully, I inspired you to give back as well.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

National Volunteer Week

The kids listening to music at OLHSA.

The lovely singers at
the OPC.

It seems fitting that I will end my volunteer/blog exploration during National Volunteer Week.

Over the last two weeks, I have volunteered at OLHSA, reading books to preschoolers and later hanging out with seniors at the OPC in Rochester. This weekend, I will end my stint during a clean-up in Pontiac.

It was a sad day at OLHSA, as nineteen employees worked their last day because budget of cuts in funding. In this climate, it seems unlikely that OLHSA will regain funding, but here's hoping.

Studies have shown that early education can make a huge difference in childrens' performance. When I walked into the classroom, children were playing at an indoor sandbox. Corralling these tykes was no easy feat, but they were soon seated on a circular rug while I read "The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers."

These kids were adorable. I quizzed them in between reading and shouts of "My favorite color is pink" about strangers. I wasn't the lone volunteer though, members of the Bloomfield Optimist Club come every month to read and sing music to the boisterous children.

Last Friday, I headed out to the OPC for the Gangsters and Hot Babes Millionaire Party fundraiser. The work day had been disasterous with only a handful of staff in the office. It was hectic, and I was not really in the mood to volunteer.

The OPC, as always, lifted my mood. I arrived in jeans and a sweater, and quickly changed into a dress and topped that off with a red feather boa.

A foursome of young ladies sang songs from the Roaring '20s. Seniors wore feather headbands, flapper dress and were accompanied by dates in suits and silk ties. 

I stepped in by greeting seniors and then borrowed from my past, serving dinners and clearing plates. The OPC goes above and beyond in creating authentic ambiance. The aforementioned singers strolled from room to room, performing in a parlor style.

A band played in the auditorium while seniors sashayed along the wooden dance floor. And the roulette and blackjack tables were swarming with gamblers. I wove in between them all with refreshments. 

Of course, I got my dance with Ralph, and even scored a story scoop. The people at the OPC are incredibly kind, and are a prize within the community. By the time I left, my darkened mood had lifted. This is either the magic of the OPC, volunteering or a combination of both.

I'm looking forward to this weekend — my last documented volunteer gig.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Three Weeks Later...

It's been three weeks since my last post.

I've been volunteering, but not writing. I don't really have a good excuse for why I haven't been blogging. It reminds me of that thank-you letter I kept putting off until I eventually forgot. But I never really forget these things. Then the guilt worms its way into my consciousness and festers.

So, cliché as it is — better late than never.

I can tell you that this past month, I've done more cooking and grocery shopping, and I spent one lovely Sunday afternoon reading for five hours in bed. I spent a weekend with extended family, and I watched a play at Meadowbrook. Rob and I were even able to get a water filtration system installed (well, truthfully, my father-in-law installed it, but that counts, right?) This weekend I will see friends and family for my best friend's baby shower.

I'm enjoying myself.

I also overextended myself at work on a special project that took three weeks to complete. And I apologize to co-workers who had to hear me whine about it. Really, how do they put up with me sometimes?

While I only have a few more weeks left on the project, I know that there are opportunities I was not able to be a part of that I still want to try. Habitat for Humanity is one of them. I also got a call for the "Greening of Detroit" project — where groups travel to the city and plant trees. I know there are other things that I still want to do, and at some point I will.

But I'm also looking forward to enjoying my summer with friends and family Up North, and not worrying about getting my "time in" and then attempting to find Internet Access in the boondocks to write about it.

Over the last couple of weeks, I've volunteered for Gleaners (again). What can I say, I love Gleaners, and yet, there always seems to be something new I can learn. So, I packed backpack meals. Two cans of Beef 'n Mac, one can of fruit, one can of vegetables, two milks and a small box of cereal. These are the meals children from low-income homes take with them on Fridays. Knowing my own eating habits, it hardly seems to be enough. Again, it makes me thankful.

Last weekend, I volunteered for the spelling bee sponsored by The Oakland Press. Not only did I get to meet more people who work for the OP, I was able to watch the enthusiasm of the students who were excited to compete academically.

There was one week I skipped out on — and I will make up for it, either by doubling up, or going one week longer.

Next week, I will be reading to preschoolers at OLHSA, and I can't wait. It goes without saying that books are an important part of my life, and I like encouraging children to enjoy reading.

If anyone has any ideas on how to spend my last weeks, feel free to send me some ideas.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Walking the Last Lap

Leah Miller, 5, gets her face painted during
the Walk for Warmth.

It's the last day of February. I'm nearly done with my project and yet I feel that instead of wrapping up my journey with gusto, I am walking the last lap.

Last week, I didn't volunteer. While there have been weeks when I have doubled up, I am disappointed in myself -- again. Sometimes, it is hard to find the variety of volunteer opportunities this part of year. At least, that is the case for any outdoor events. And last week, family priorities trumped my volunteering.

I tried to make up for it this week, by quite literally walking. I walked laps for Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency in the Walk for Warmth fundraiser. Money from the event goes to provide emergency heating assistance. When news leaked out Friday that OLHSA might be losing a lot of federal funding, I knew that I needed to highlight all the good OLHSA does.

The first time I visited OLHSA was when I wrote a story about the head start children who were getting Christmas toys by a local Optimist club. Many of these children would not have had toys if it hadn't been for this organization, and it was difficult to not feel touched by the childrens' happy faces.

So, I called up Adela Piper, the head of PR, and asked if I could come help. On Sunday morning, not feeling super great, I grabbed a backpack and filled it with my notepad, camera and water, and headed over to The Palace of Auburn Hills. There were many volunteers ready to help. Genisys Credit Union supplied about one-hundred-fifty volunteers for the event. OLHSA employees added another fifty.

Because OLHSA had it pretty much organized, I decided that I would have to make up my time with money, so I threw in some coin and decided that I would walk.

Before doing so, though, I interviewed volunteers and walkers. Joe Wozniak stuck out, making the lead for the news story that I 'volunteered' for work. Within six months, he had lost his wife, his job, and his home. He went to OLHSA for help. And while he is still trying to turn his life around, he makes a point of showing up for this event, and remains optimistic.

I also was able to chat with Eileen Hawthorne and her daughter Megan. Eileen works one day a week at OLHSA. She is one of those people who just sends out positive vibes. She reminded me of my husband's aunt, Carol. Whenever around Carol, people seem to feel at ease, and just talk. Both women have this charisma, and they also help people when they can. It was energizing to meet someone else like this, and it made walking about three miles go a bit faster.

To donate to OLHSA, visit

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cruise Control

So, I've definitely been phoning it in these past few weeks.

I have been faithfully volunteering, but I haven't done a great job of documenting it in the blog. In fact, as much as I like my project, it's been a tough month and I am looking forward to April.

Feeling like this also makes me feel like a big load of crap. I'm nearly finished with my project, so why has it made me feel drained? I'm wondering if the gray skies are making me care less, or perhaps I'm just overwhelmed with side projects. Maybe it's laziness?

Regardless, I need to share what I've been up to.

Nearly three weeks ago, the headlines (including the OP) screamed "Snowpocalypse." Even though the storm was pretty minor, I knew that most places would be closed, making it hard for me to get my volunteering quota filled.

So, last week, I took on two gigs to make up for it. But, I only worked about four hours total. Lame.

I went to Gleaners, which I love, to help sort through big bins to distribute a variety of food and other items. This was a new experience, because I had never seen what corporations donate. Besides some odd items, such as Speedo swim goggles, Christmas lights and purses, personal items like condoms, lotions and nail polish were all part of the mix.

I popped in before work and and volunteered for about an hour and a half. I loved it. I don't have to make small talk, I get some exercise, and quite frankly, the staff members are probably some of the best people to work with. They make it easy -- almost too easy, because I was a half-hour late for work. Don't worry OP editors, I worked late to make it up for it.

On Saturday, I drove to Fenton for the Polar Bear Plunge. I had contemplated diving into the icy water myself (the money goes toward the Special Olympics of Michigan), but I realized that if I got sick, I was going to really be in trouble. Besides, I've taken on Lake Superior in early April. I have nothing to prove.

But did have fun on the sidelines -- albeit the soggy mess of water that kept creeping toward the onlookers. Seniors and teens alike dressed in hula skirts, polar bear masks and even an appearance from Cousin Eddie from "National Lampoons Christmas Vacation," replete with bathrobe, stogy and the RV hose, jumped.

My job for the day was to document the happenings and shoot video, which I did. And I e-mailed it to the event coordinator, but the e-mail keeps bouncing back. So, now my presence feels even more negligible. Instead, a huge thank you should go out to Walgreen's, who sent more than forty volunteers to help out.

More polar plunges are taking place this weekend. Check them out here. The funds raised really do make a difference to the athletes taking part in the games.

For this week, I still need to volunteer. I think I will be headed back to Gleaners tomorrow morning since I am taking an impromptu trip north this weekend. I need something convenient. But, hopefully, for the rest of my experiment in philanthropy, I will be more engaged. There are still so many places I haven't helped out at yet, and I am running out of time.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Rockin' with the Oldies

Photo courtesy of  Larry Hartwick.
Seniors know how to work the dance floor.
This post comes two weeks old, but it's worth mentioning. The Soc Hop at the Older Persons' Commission in Rochester was a retro way to spend my Friday night.

While the music, clothes and food were the only elements that I needed to have a good time, a nice bonus was having my gal pal, Jacquelyn, there with me.

When we arrived, we checked out the women who were donning capris and full skirts, and the men who were showcasing leather jackets and duck-tail hair.

After meeting with Meg Baker, we  were quickly put to work, and received some paper wedge caps to help us look a bit more authentic at the refreshment table. I must have a big head, because mine kept slouching off.

Our first duty was to keep the coffee flowing — or I should say, the decaff flowing.

After a couple of requests for regular, I started replying, "We only have decaff tonight. We know how you guys get with caffeine! You tear the place apart."

This got a few laughs, and thankfully, Jacquelyn is patient, because she had to hear it about twenty times, and that tends to get stale pretty quickly.

After refilling the pots of coffee in the kitchen with a paper cup (there was an odd instant coffee maker and I ended up making a mess) and carrying carafes of water back, the line dwindled.

We headed down to the dance floor, and tried our skills at hula hooping. I have hula hooped before, but the hoop was weighted. These were so light, I could barely keep any of the hoops on my hips. One of the senior staff members put me to shame. After tiring, I took a few hoops around to the wallflowers to get them out on the floor. And, I actually got a few women to try it.

Of course, I had to get in a couple dances with Ralph, who says, "Music is the universal language."

He's right and he's smooth on the dance floor. He's inspired me to look into taking dance lessons. We both agreed that the art of dance is dying.

After the last song, we moved upstairs and started the tear-down process. The great thing about the OPC — other than that it finally opened up to adults fifty and older – is that it offers such a variety of activities. From kickboxing to knitting, OPC aims to engage all seniors. And the OPC also seeks volunteers to teach some of these classes. I strongly encourage checking out this gem in the city of Rochester.

To learn more, visit the OPC at

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Scent of Pine

Volunteers haul brush at a recent workday for the DNRE.
I went back to my roots Saturday morning. Or rather, I went back to the brush and boughs of my youth.

When I was about ten, my mother took a part-time job at a senior citizen center about three blocks away from our home. During her work days, I was allowed to stay home without a sitter. The idea thrilled me. While my friends had to be carted away to some middle-aged woman's home with crappy playground equipment, I was going to be free to roam. But, my father had other plans, and he made sure to keep me busy with a multitude of chores. I could earn five bucks a day. It was a pretty good deal for both of us.

Mowing the lawn and weeding were pretty standard chores. Doing the dishes and picking up the house didn't bother me. I didn't even have a problem scrubbing a toilet. But when my dad told me that part of my summer tasks would include picking up sticks from the woods, I was skeptical.

"Dad, it's the woods...sticks are in the woods. You know?"

My protests and groans did me no good. I was to pick up sticks and brush that would later be burned. I still don't see the rationale of burning brush that would naturally decompose.

Our home sat on a three-acre lot at the edge of town. Rows of red pine lined the back yard, resembling aisles as neat as a grocery store. Red pine is good for nothing except for snapping in half and making a mess during Northern Michigan ice storms. Now it was going to dictate how I spent my three-month reprieve from school.

As an adult, I've started to see the wisdom in my dad's plan. I was ten years old, left alone in our home. I  realize that my dad just wanted to make sure I didn't get into any trouble between the hours of nine and three. And it worked.

So when I was e-mailed information on a workday for the DNRE, it was pretty easy to show up to the Silo Field Trial Area at Highland Recreation for a day of work I was familiar with.

When I arrived at the field, I thought I had stumbled upon an ad for Carhartt. Most of the volunteers are involved in field trial training for various dog breeds. I was asked a few times what dog group I was from, and when I said that I wasn't, I was asked who I was affiliated with. It seemed that no one could understand I was representing myself. So, I gave The Oakland Press some credit even though the paper really has nothing to do with my project except for hosting the blog on our website. Mostly, I tell people I'm an editor at the OP because it excites them because they might be featured. And it never hurts to promote my work.

After we filled out volunteer information, we headed back into the field. I decided I would walk out with another volunteer, and I ended up winded by the time I reached the site. Once there, we started hauling brush and limbs through the snow, towering them onto piles. This was fairly steady work for about an hour and a half. After a while though, we started to catch up with the downed limbs, and I mostly gabbed with people for a half hour.

I listened while the volunteers talked shop, movies and what deer they bagged this fall. It felt like home.

The work was gratifying. The cold air was refreshing, but lacked the bite often associated with January weather. I only got snapped in the face about a half-dozen times and I managed to catch myself from a face plant after my leg tangled with some sort of invasive vine. I'm starting to understand some of the work the DNRE is trying to accomplish.

When it looked like most people were doing more standing than working, I decided to cut out early. I don't use these fields and I had to prepare for about fifteen guests coming to my home for the evening. I said good bye to my fellow volunteers and caught a ride in a pickup with one of the men I met earlier.

Volunteering with the DNRE is not only a great way to get out of the house, it also helps out the state because it provides free labor. It also helps restore the native species that provide habitat for wildlife.

If anything, Saturday's work gave me some exercise and a time for reflection. I've noticed that many people don't get the same satisfaction I get from doing manual labor. Those people are probably smarter then I am. Regardless, I met some new folks, and I have an idea for a feature story on this sector of Oakland County dog enthusiasts. The DNRE offers a variety of work days in various parks, if interested, click here.