Thursday, December 23, 2010

Freezing My Tush for The Salvation Army

An hour after returning home from my four-hour bell-ringing experience for The Salvation Army, I began to regain feeling in my toes. Despite the warmth, I was still seething with how my experience ended. And to be fair, I'm still not in a great mood.

My afternoon went about as best as can be expected. The first hour went quickly. At that point, I plugged in my iPod. Otis Redding on a frigid evening was a nice start, and my soundtrack shuffled along.

By hour two, I had made two quick stops inside the Kroger doors to warm up. The shuffle on my pod went to classic rock. By the time "Freebird" came on, I was swinging my bell like I was trying to fly away one-handed. I forgot how long that solo lasts.

Hour three was the worst. It dragged on and on. When five-thirty came along, my ghetto "old skool" hip-hop mix thumped through the headphones. Some Juvenile and Outkast had me, no joke, two-steppin' like Julia Stiles in that crappy movie, "Save the Last Dance." If anything, this kept me warm and made many people stare and laugh. That's cool though. My personal philosophy is that it's OK to make a jackass of myself on a daily basis. Score one for me.

Throughout all of this, kind strangers slipped their dollars and change into to the slot of the red kettle.

When I only had fifteen minutes for my shift to end, I was relieved and panicky. What if they don't show? What would I do with this kettle? Five minutes to six, and my relief came. As the paid worker approached, he kindly said, "I came a little early. I thought you might be cold, this being your first time."

He then told me he could take over and directed me to the blue van in the parking lot where the woman who changes the kettles was sitting. As I approached her door, I could tell that she was ticked.

"Hi, um, my relief guy came, so..."

"What are you doing?" she asked. "You still have five minutes on your shift! That's your bucket up there, not his. You go up there and tell him I will be there in five minutes."

Astonished, I turned away and started walking back. I should state that with my chubby cheeks and padded-up getup, I look pretty darn young. Regardless, I was put off by this attitude. The woman started walking behind me, and when she approached, she chewed out the guy for being EARLY!

She went back to get the van and switched the kettles.

At this point, I'd had it. I waited until we were near the van and away from the employee.

"Hi, what's your name," I asked. After her response, "Well, my name is Valerie West, and I work at The Oakland Press, and I write about volunteering."

Sidebar — I have never used this line before. It felt odd and powerful at the same time. I kept thinking, of that line, "With great power comes great responsibility" from "Spider Man."

"I don't want to get anyone in trouble, but I've been volunteering for quite a while, and I have never been spoken to so rudely or scolded like that."

Her face fell, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scold you. But I don't like him telling me how to do my job."

"I don't think he was telling you how to do your job. I think he was doing his job and showed up early. I've been out here for four hours. I'm cold. And I'm a volunteer. I don't get paid to do this! And that man was nice enough to come and help out.

She apologized again.

I didn't accept it. When I'm angry, I can be steely. I was not in the mood for forgiveness. I wish that I could be the kind of person who turns the other cheek and doesn't have to have the last word. Perhaps if she had given me some sob story of her life, and why she was so cranky, I could have. But I didn't. Colder than the temperature outside, I repeated, "It's cold. It's been four hours. Have a nice night."

I want to give the benefit of the doubt, and say that this type of behavior is not typical. I would, except that after my last post, another volunteer complained about her experience. I should note that this woman is pretty active in her community.

This was her Facebook post, "I had hands down the WORST experience ever as a bell ringer (if I can even call myself that since I was put through so many... loops of bs) last year. Long story short, I followed instructions, asked questions before to confirm, showed up then, an hour into my time, with no kettle, was told it was all my fault."

What can I say, nine months into this project and right before Christmas, I have a sour taste in my mouth.

I certainly would not want this woman fired for what happened. Instead, I'd like her to enjoy a nice eight-hour stint ringing that bell outside of a Kroger. At the very least, I would hope that she has more respect for the people who take time out of their lives to volunteer for others.

And to all of those wonderful donors who sent me words of encouragement while throwing some coin into the red kettle — thank you.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Salvation Army Bell Ringing Dilemma

The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is a landmark for the gay community and its advocates. Men and women serving the country — and let's face it, dying on foreign soil — will no longer have to deny a key part of who they are. It's also timely in my life, considering something a friend wrote me.

After my last blog post, my friend, who is gay, left a comment that has me questioning myself: "They (The Salvation Army) have repeatedly refused to serve food or provide shelter to gays in need. Many people won't donate to their organization because of this," he wrote.

The Salvation Army has been accused of denying assistance to gays as well as discriminating in hiring  practices, according to numerous news reports. After scouring old news stories, the most recent I found was from The Huffington Post, earlier this month. The article suggests that perhaps donations are down because of the Army's stance on homosexuality. While The Salvation Army is a Christian organization, it does take federal funding. Many evangelical organizations condemn homosexuality. The Catholic faith is a powerhouse of charity work, yet we know where it stands on reproductive choices and gay rights.

Here's an excerpt from The Salavation Army's website:

"The Army regards the origins of a homosexual orientation as a mystery and does not regard a homosexual disposition as blameworthy in itself or rectifiable at will. Nevertheless, while we are not responsible for what we are, we are accountable for what we do; and homosexual conduct, like heterosexual conduct, is controllable and may be morally evaluated therefore in the light of scriptural teaching."

Basically, it says, It's OK to be gay — but not act on physical impulses. So, it's not OK to be gay?

The mission of The Salvation Army is "To preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination," and stands firm that it does not discriminate based on sexual preference.

For the record, I am for gay rights, and do not support discrimination of any kind. Personally, it annoys me that people care so much what others choose to do in their bedrooms. Aren't there more important things to worry about? Thus, I find myself in a dilemma. Am I making a difference helping the area's hungry and homeless while at the same time promoting anti-gay propaganda?

I have worked with other Christian organizations even though I do not believe or accept some key notions of the faith. I have volunteered alongside Bible thumpers as well as aetheists. There seems to be a unified goal among volunteers to help and not judge.

Because I haven't stayed in a Salvation Army-sponsored shelters, I doubt I will find out if gay people have faced discrimination. Perhaps it’s something to check out down the road. I would hope being a charitable organization, this would not happen.

Regardless, I will honor my committment this afternoon. To be honest, I don't know how to feel about it.

I encourage discourse on this matter though. Please leave a comment.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ring-ting-aling with the Red Kettle Campaign

In college, a friend and I stood outside of a ShopKo (a Yooper Kmart) and rang bells for The Salvation Army. I think it was only a couple of hours, but I remember that we tried to stay warm by jumping around when customers weren't near us while we butchered the lyrics to Christmas carols.

Now, tomorrow, I will be doing it solo. For four hours. There will be no concert.

This has been a rough year for the Red Kettle campaign. For the Pontiac-area, the donations were down five-thousand dollars from where it was last year, said Major Nate Johnson, last Friday. Usually, the Red Kettle campaign is finished by Christmas, but because donations have been down, it will continue to December 31.

"The Christmas Kettle is our single, largest drive of the year," Nate said, adding that the money helps with holiday items, like food baskets. But it also funds year-round assistance including literacy, senior and after-school programs.

Johnson speculates that part of the reason funds may be down is partly because of the economy and partly because of the weather. It has been a cold one down here, and I wonder if I've brought a little U.P. to Southeastern Michigan. I bought new mittens so that I won't have to spend as much time inside warming up.

This is a critical time for The Salvation Army Nate said, "I don't know when things are going to get better. You hear it's getting better, but we're not seeing it on our end. We hope they remember the Red Kettle this time of year."

I hope you do too. I understand that not everyone can give. If you can't give though, perhaps throw me a smile. I know most people would like to just get in and get out without looking at the person in the red apron, but really, it doesn't hurt my feelings if you have no coin. Being ignored sucks though. 

Besides being a worthy cause, volunteering with the Red Kettle is downright convenient. Compared to many volunteer stints, I didn't have to sign a bunch of documents, provide my Social Security number, or my right leg. OK, I'm exaggerating.

But it was easy, I just visited and filled in the location and time that I desired. Even though donations are down, volunteer help has risen. Nate noted that many athletic teams from Oakland University have helped out, as well as Rochester Schools and the Clarkston United Methodist Church.

So, if you happen to go grocery shopping in White Lake, you might see me ringing a bell from two to six.

Happy Shopping!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Smorgasbord and Merry Christmas!

Fair trade goods for Christmas! 
If you live in Southeastern Michigan, it should come as no surprise that many places canceled Monday and Tuesday — not the news though! My round trip commute to work, which is just less than forty miles, ended up taking nearly four hours. Banging my head against my steering wheel, I was glad to find out that afternoon tutoring was canceled for the night.

But, I still got to hang out yesterday for an international potluck. A feast. And it was delicious.

Though the only country I have yet to travel outside of the U.S. to is Canada, tutoring ESL has given me a small taste of other cultures. Last night was no exception. As I ate a variety of foods representing German, Polish and Asian cultures, I realized that we are all so much alike. I also realized that if I had the money, I would hire one of the students as my personal chef. Bring on the sauteed peppers with feta!

Give us good food, and stories of families come tumbling out. Who doesn't have problems with inlaws? OK, I'm actually pretty lucky in that field, but many are not. This experience has made me realize how much I like tutoring English to non-native speakers. There are only two classes left after the holidays, and I will not be staying for the second semester. I feel sad about this, and wonder if my Tuesday nights will seem a little dull.

Though I love it, and want to continue in the future, the goal of the blog was to try a variety of volunteer opportunities and share them. Because there is no class next week, I will be helping out the Salvation Army's Red Kettle campaign.

Yep, I will be begging for  your coin outside of the White Lake Kroger Wednesday. OK, I won't actually beg, but I will ring that bell heartily.

As Christmas quickly approaches, there are still many things that you can do to make a difference, locally and globally.

- Many stores, churches, shelters and nonprofit organizations offer ways to donate or adopt a family for Christmas. Most lists ask for gift items for children, clothing and food. While you won't know the family directly, you will know that on Christmas, you have made a difference in making the holiday special. I can't list every organization that offers this service, but here are a couple local groups that can always use money to help families:

Oakland Livingston Human Services Agency can always use donations, especially around the holidays. A couple of years ago, I reported on a local Optimist Club who delivered gifts to children there. It seeks volunteers year-round.

Lighthouse of Oakland County offers emergency services. It also has a wish list of items many families need. Or, if you have some time, a multitude of volunteer opportunities are available. Secretaries, drivers, and more are all needed.

Toys for Tots is another easy way to give back. Many local stores have a drop boxes at their locations, taking the guess work out of giving.

For those who are still shopping for gifts, (I know many of you are!) fair-trade goods offer a way to give a unique gift while helping out the artisans who created it. I just bought gifts from Global Girlfriend. The shipping was fast and inexpensive, and I am more than happy with my purchases. There are many more similar websites. I chose this one because I liked the products and it was endorsed by Oprah, which meant I could be lazy and didn't have to check if it was legit. But there are many others out there, so if you find one, please share it.

See you at Kroger!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lesson Plans

All three of my ladies made it to last Thursday's tutoring session. I was battling a nagging cold, thus, the late blog response.

After working on the resume from the last session, and reading newspaper articles, we did a crossword puzzle. The women did surprisingly well, and I don't know why we didn't do this sooner. Not only is it fun, but it does help the women improve their vocabularies.

We've got some specific work ahead of us for tomorrow. One woman, who struggles with telling stories in detail, was assigned to tell me something about herself. I told her it could be her wedding, a birthday, a death in her family. I suggested she write in in Polish and then attempt to translate in English.

For another student who struggles with writing, she suggested I make some flashcards with single words on them so that she can piece sentences together. Good idea — now, I just have to make the cards up tonight. I'm interested to see what things she can come up with. I figure we could try more crossword puzzles as well.

The class isn't all work though, it's a cultural experience. Thursday, I will be sneaking back in for a potluck to try out some traditional dishes from the students.

With the holidays quickly approaching, it's not always easy to take time out of busy schedules to help out. But later this week, I will post some volunteer opportunities that may be convenient for some to try out. Also, for those still struggling for gift ideas, I'll have some creative giving ways to help out the community.

If you have any ideas, please feel free to send me a message, and I will try to include it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Job Hunt

The Great Language Barrier has never felt so strong as it has during the last couple of weeks tutoring. The class seems to be getting leaner, and I have been working with a woman who speaks very limited English.

So, on my part, there are a lot of gestures and comparisons. The week before Thanksgiving, she was given a list of words that she would see in "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving."

Traditions. Wishy-washy. Peculiar. 

Traditions seemed to be no problem. Wishy-washy, not so much.

"It's when you can't make up your mind," I said. "When you keep going back-and-forth trying to make a decision.

"Like, 'I think I want turkey for dinner. No, I want meatloaf. Nope, better make it turkey.' Does that make sense?"

"Like, gas in your car?"

"Not exactly."

Dictionaries are no help at all. Half of the words in the definition need to be defined. 

I could literally hear the minutes ticking away on the clock hanging from the wall. It was a bit stressful for both of us.

This week, luckily, things were a bit smoother.

I have to give this student credit. She spends a lot of time in the library. Instead of working on a list of words this week, we worked on job applications.

"Tell me what you are good at."

"I cook. I clean. I do everything but prostitution," she said, laughing.

After getting her to  explain what her duties were, we had a pretty good start. Now, I'm going to turn that into a resume for her.

I can't imagine how hard it would be to find a job in this economy, and not even be able to speak English well. But I'm going to remain optimistic.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Beyond Stuffed

This is not the dinner I ate – it
was better!
Turkey leftovers may be nearing an end, but my Thanksgiving ended up being one of the best I can remember because I was able to give back — and do it with my husband, Rob.

Thanksgiving morning, Rob and I grabbed a cooler and icepack and headed over to The Commission on Aging in Port Huron.

After picking up our route sheet and meals — nine dinners in total — we got our GPS out and started our drive. We were both unsure of the people we would meet. Rob admitted that he had been cranky that morning because he was nervous. And that's normal — most people are nervous when they meet strangers. But that's also why it made it even more special to me that he had willingly come out to help.

We were both unsure of the people we would meet. Some, clearly just wanted their dinners, while others wanted to chat. After a couple of awkward drop offs, we came to the home of an elderly woman. As I went to ring the doorbell, we could see her resting in a chair.

"Please wake up. Please wake up," Rob said, fearing the worst.

"I'm coming," the woman said, inching toward the door with her walker.

After inviting us in, we learned that this white-haired lady was one-hundred years old, and had lived in the area almost her whole life. She has three children — one who died a few years back. She has several grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and yes, great-great-grandchildren.

A soft spoken woman, she could hear my husband fine. I, however, was at a near scream.

"How long were you married?"

"What?" she replied, looking at me confused.

We figured it must be the pitch of my voice that she couldn't understand.

Since we still had about six more stops, I gave the woman a hug and we went on our way again. The hardest part about the day was figuring out what to do when people on our list were not home. I had heard from volunteers in Oakland County that they had found people lying on the floor, and had been a life link. I wasn't sure what to do when people didn't answer. Rob later found an informational sheet in our packet. We found this after we were nearly finished.

OK, I admit it: I didn't look very hard inside the manila envelope with instructions. Having it earlier would have been helpful. The sheet instructed us to give the meals to a hungry elderly person.

This seemed odd. I do not know anyone in that area. And, I don't feel comfortable pawning off food to strangers who might "look" hungry. We took the meals home and offered them to a relative to see if she could donate them. I kind of wished later that we had just brought a plastic bag and left it on the door handle.

Meals on Wheels programs are offered through almost every city through senior citizen programs.  

In 2007, nearly six million seniors faced the threat of hunger. Many because of financial restraints, according to the Meals on Wheels website. This is not necessarily news, but actually walking into these people's homes hit me in a personal way. I have never been more thankful for my husband, family, good friends and a warm home. Isn't that what Thanksgiving is all about?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Turkey Day!

I've joked with friends and family that my main priority for Thanksgiving is finding the appropriate sweatpants to wear. I'm not into unbuttoning my pants in front of family (well, not anymore...) so sweatpants will afford me the room I desire to cram myself full of turkey and cranberry sauce.

I've waited in anticipation for the turkey, stuffing and the oh-so-sweet sweet potatoes my mother-in-law lovingly mashes. And then I remembered that perhaps I should focus on more than the menu.

While I will still volunteer at my stint — tutoring ELS in Highland tomorrow — I also decided last minute that I do want to volunteer on Thanksgiving. This brings back a conversation I had with a friend and fellow coworker about an episode on "How I Met Your Mother."

Basically, two of the main characters decide last minute that they want to do something good on Thanksgiving — but so does everybody else, times ten. So, instead of helping out, they basically end up standing around.

I don't want to be that person.

I've made a phone call to a contact I ran across for The Oakland Press at the Area Agency on Aging 1-B. Basically. I want to help out with Meals on Wheels. 

Again, I feel like a jerk for calling last minute to ask if there's a way I can help. I'm sure my contact had enough work to do for the day, and now, she's taking time to help me (Thanks Kathleen!) 

I'm hoping she can help set up something for me and that I can do a little good on a day when helping others should be the focus — along with the turkey. If Kathleen can hook me up, I'll have to find some other attire and leave the sweats in the closet. It should be worth it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Sincerely Flattered

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, consider me blushing.

After spending nearly eight months volunteering on a weekly basis for “The VALunteer Project,” (yes, I did take a couple of weeks off during vacation), I see that a competitive online newspaper has assigned reporters to volunteer and then write about the experience. While initially annoyed that my pet project is now being re-written in Ferndale, it’s nothing new. Media outlets scan each others stuff and then rehash it.

For the record, I do not get paid to volunteer or write my blog. I came up with the idea at work and then during a staff meeting, got the semi-cheesy name from our online editor. (Thanks Steve, it’s actually been a hit in the community.)

I go to my day job first, then spend my time volunteering. Sometimes it’s a few hours on a Saturday; other times it’s been after work. It’s a personal journey, and so far, it’s been more than rewarding. Volunteering has helped me more than I have probably helped others. I get to meet cool people, hang out with animals and improve my navigational skills as I maneuver Oakland County’s traffic. Most importantly, I get to share with the community the needs of various groups that do important work to help out.

While I’m not a fan of copycat journalism, I am a fan of volunteering. Though not “court ordered,” can you call it volunteering if it’s an assignment? I’m not sure.

Regardless of my annoyance that my blog idea has been skimmed, how many cooking blogs are out there? How many fashion blogs? Can I even claim originality? Spending time in the community is always a worthwhile cause, and my only hope is that original or imitation, people will be inspired to help out others.

Please, feel free to share your thoughts with me. How do you make your world better? And how can I help out in my community.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gossip Girls

It was dark and rainy Tuesday night. This is what I hate most about winter — the darkness. I don't even mind the temperature change that much, but when it gets too dark to take walks and bike rides after five o'clock, I feel a bit stir crazy.

That's why volunteering can be such a motivator during the winter — it gets me off of my couch.

So, I headed over to Highland to tutor ESL. Only semi-damp from the run from my car to the building, I met my two regular gal pals. We started to look over the worksheets they had been assigned, but then one of the women left early because she felt ill.

So it was just Helen and me. After reading a newspaper study on the effects of alcoholism, we skipped the grammar lesson and just talked. OK, we gossiped.

Helen told me about her role as a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law. Though she lives in a large house, she is taking care of extended family members, and that can be stressful. From laundry and housekeeping pet peeves to a mother-in-law that greets her in the driveway, I served as a cathartic receptacle. And I laughed with her.

She also told me about how she met her husband. Not exactly arranged, the marriage was encouraged. And, being a dutiful daughter, she listened to her parents.

Her husband, more than ten years her senior, had lived in the states for quite a while before she met him on a visit to her home. Her family did a "background check," essentially making sure he was a stable match for her. I envision a web of phone calls made from distant cousins and uncles making its way back to Helen's parents. She didn't marry for love, but it seems that she has done alright. She's raised four children, and is still married.

"You have your ups and downs," she says laughing, while making wave motions with her hand.

American marriage statistics are pretty bleak, so I'm not one to judge. I got married much younger than I had anticipated, but more than three years later, I'm still happy with that decision.

More than marriage though, we talked about expectations for women, and how hard it can be — and I don't even have children yet. I think about having a job, taking care of our home and my hobbies, and I know that something will have to give when Rob and I decide to raise children. But I am thankful for the partnership I have with him. Sure, we have our "traditional roles." Ask me about my thoughts on taking out the trash and I'll point to Rob.

Sometimes, I get more out of volunteering than I give. Tuesday was one of those nights.


Friday, November 12, 2010


Heading into Birmingham Unitarian Church Wednesday night, I was greeted by Paul Plante "Ministry of Transportation" to find out what duties I would have for the evening.

For more than twenty years, the church has dedicated one week out of the year offering men, women and children a place to sleep and eat while providing transportation for jobs and school through a partnership with South Oakland Shelter — SOS.

SOS partners with area churches and shelters throughout the year to provide temporary stays for guests. At the BUC alone, nearly two-hundred-and-fifty people prepare meals, clean, and offer support to SOS clients.

As a reporter three years ago, I wrote a story on a woman who was in the SOS program. She had a job and was in the process of finding a home. I was impressed by the structure the program offers. SOS strives to help clients find jobs and homes. In the morning, guests are woken up and taken to either their jobs or back to SOS for the day. They are picked up later that night. Once they sign in, they can go and pack a lunch for the next day, eat dinner, relax and prepare for the next day.

After a quick tour, Paul led me to the kitchen so that I could help. The crew was large that night, so my tasks were pretty light. I helped plate desserts, cleaned up a coffee spill and peeled hard-boiled eggs.

I spoke with Louise Angermeier of Bloomfield Hills, who said her myths about the homeless were dispelled once she started volunteering with this program. She's been volunteering with BUC-SOS for eight years.

"I think that there are a lot of people that are in a bad situation right now — through no fault of their own — and anything we can do to support them is a valuable contribution to the community," she said.
"I am continually touched and inspired by the people that I meet."

After kitchen prep work was finished, I headed up to the front desk to watch Paul schedule transportation for the following day.

He uses a spreadsheet to help him stay organized. Having to figure it out would have given me a headache. But even when he was interrupted several times, he remained calm. Everyone has different places they need to be at different times and there are more guests than drivers.

"I have a special request for you, and you are free to turn it down," he'd say over the phone to the volunteers. The drivers were upbeat and cheerful and were able to change their schedules to help. After about a half-hour, the scheduling was completed.

I am thoroughly humbled by the amount of time people give. I hate getting up in the morning, yet volunteers had signed up to drive strangers as early as five in the morning. All of the volunteers are as gracious, and not all are from the BUC. Paul is kind to the guests, asking how they are feeling and joking with them. One man came into the office to use the Internet so he could finish his work.

Later, I went down to the kitchen and swept up and helped an older gentleman take out the trash. I was only there for about two and a half hours —these volunteers are working around the clock.

As part of BUC's philosophy, the organization's purpose is "To encourage members to contribute their time, talent and resources to the betterment of the society and world in which they live."

This is an institution that lives what it says, and I was the better for being able to take part.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

When Life Intervenes

So, this week is proving to be a challenge.

Not only did I double book myself for volunteering, but I also have house guests coming down that I wasn't expecting — after I already tore up the spare bedroom.

As I frantically painted a new table for the room, I realized that something was all over the new bedspread. I was supposed to leave for ESL tutoring, but by then, things were just a bit nuts.

So, I didn't go. And I didn't e-mail ahead of time. Usually, I am more responsible, but sometimes life just gets in the way. I'm wondering, does this happen to anyone else?

So this morning, I sent out an e-mail to the teacher to tell him I would be back next week. I will still be volunteering tonight, at a church-run shelter in Bloomfield Hills. Basically, the church works with South Oakland Shelter, an organization that helps provide housing, meals and transportation by teaming up with churches and area shelters. 

I think I will be helping out with dinner and other tasks, and getting a feel for what the volunteers do. I was told that there are more than two hundred volunteers helping this church.  

I'm a bit nervous to go, but excited to try something new.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fields of Flowers

Blue and sunny skies greeted me Sunday afternoon on my latest volunteer stint.

Since last Tuesday's ESL tutoring session was cancelled, I had to find a replacement.

Luckily, a fellow coworker told me about an opportunity that would get me outside, and it was close to home — a nice bonus!

I spent my time helping out the Department of Nature Resources and Environment Recreation Division, Stewardship Unit (yes, it's a mouthful) gathering flower seeds. The seeds will be taken to Seven Lakes State Park in Holly where the department is creating a more diverse, native prairie landscape.

I arrived about ten minutes late (after going to the wrong section of the park) to find Laurel Malvitz-Draper talking to a group of about sixty people gathered in a semi-circle around her.

Holding my bucket, I grabbed an orange vest, donated by Bass Pro Shop, and headed out into the field  to watch her demonstrate the plants we would be looking for.

After Laurel showed us what bush clover, bee balm and aster look like, I took off down the trail to fill my bucket with the brown buds. I found it peaceful to be in the field as the sun shone down on my face. I find it relaxing — almost spiritual — to be in nature. And the weather couldn't have been more perfect.

The hours went by quickly. Soon my bucket was full, and needed to be emptied in the communal bag. As I pulled burr-like seeds from my pants, I chatted with a couple other volunteers.

Steve Powell of Waterford Township has been volunteering with stewardship programs for about four years. An avid hunter and fisher, he realizes the importance of a balanced, natural ecosystem.

"I wanted to give back," he said, adding, "I've never realized how deteriorated these areas are."

Years ago, when it came to building, it was easier to construct homes on prairies than in the many wetlands Michigan has, he said. So, now, many of Michigan's fields don't offer the same habitat that it used to.

Now, with a little help, Steve hopes Michigan's open spaces will start to resemble what it did hundreds of years ago. Many local parks are also doing controlled burns in the area. Not only does the ash help the soil, it also helps rid it of invasive species.

The DNRE offers multiple monthly volunteer opportunities for people to help keep Michigan the gem it is. Laurel noted that budget cutbacks make it hard to do this type of work.

"Staff is used to man the booths and clean bathrooms," she said, adding that if it were not for volunteers, this type of work would not get done. "I think that everyone likes getting out in the fall, and it's good for all ages."

This proved to be true, parents toted children along for the seed collection, and it was nice to see them romping around on the two-track dirt paths.

"It's really fun, and it doesn't really feel like work," she said.

I had to agree. Before I left, I made sure that my name will remain on the e-mail list. I'm looking forward to some winter activities to help stave off cabin fever.

To find out more about volunteer opportunities, check out the volunteer page as well as the calendar of events.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Doing Dishes and Scratching Rashes

Yesterday's tutoring session was cancelled, but last week's proved to be challenging and rewarding.

This time, I worked again with a woman I had met on my first night. She has a hard time speaking, so we looked at pictures in her text book so that she could describe the action.

Household activities were pretty easy for her to describe. Then, she practiced writing sentences afterward. I was surprised by her spelling abilities. She's only been in the country for about three years. While her speaking is coming slowly, her writing seems fairly solid.

We skipped a few chapters ahead, where the photos were not quite as pleasant. Instead of looking at men and women doing the laundry and dishes, we saw characters holding out bloody hands and scratching at rashes. Gross.

This was a bit more awkward, but we stumbled through.

After taking a break, the ladies and I just chatted. I learned that my newest mentee was looking for housekeeping work, but it's not easy when she can't speak. So, I told her that I would look for some positions and see what I could do.

It's my mission this weekend to try and find something for her.

I was also contacted by a woman who does PR, who reminded me about Mango Languages. We had written an article on it a couple of years ago at The Oakland Press. I had checked it out and thought it was pretty cool.

Many local libraries offer the program for free, and for those who are interested in learning a new language, it's worth checking out.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Hearing Deaf

As I readied myself for tutoring ESL in Highland last week, I had no idea how quickly the class would progress.

I left my two mentees on spelling and came back to irregular verbs and past participles.

How to explain the difference between shook and shaken?

"Well, you have to use a helping verb before the past participle," I said. "I shook versus I was shaken."

But one question leads to another. I had to then explain "helping" verbs, also known as linking verbs.

Anyone remember those: Is, am, was, were, be, being, been? Honestly, I can only recite them because my high school English teacher had us memorize them as if our very futures depended on the knowledge.

"But why? What is the difference?" Jane asked me.

So I tried talking about active and passive voice and brevity.

Nothing. I was frustrated, feeling useless. She was frustrated as well.

"Sometimes, I feel like a deaf person," Jane said. "I can hear people, but I can't understand."

It seemed like the best thing to do was to take a break from grammar. 

Helen, who speaks very well and has been in the country for more than twenty years, said for the first three years of living in the states, she used to run inside her house if she saw her neighbor outside because she was embarrassed that she could not speak.

Jane's experiences remind me of the lack of American hospitality. No welcome wagons here.

"People are too busy to try and understand me," she said, with a shrug.

We go back to the task at hand. She writes in her book, picking up the past participle in writing, but confounded as to its purpose. How do I explain that English is a ridiculous, beautiful language that most native speakers cannot fully understand?

I gave the women my number, encouraging them to call. Especially Jane, who works in housekeeping and has no real way to practice the language she seeks to know.

No calls came over the week, but I am hopeful that tonight will prove to be a more positive experience for all of us.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Phonetics - ahhhh

For my handful of readers out there, I am still blogging. Last week just got away from me.

Last Tuesday, I headed back to Highland to tutor ESL. Instead of three women, I worked with two. Because the women aren't keen on their names being used, I am giving them pseudonyms.

I felt a bit more prepared the second time around. Part of that was because I had brought books for the women to keep.

For Jane, I chose "In Mania's Memory," memoirs on the Holocaust. I thought this would be good for her, because she speaks Polish and said she likes nonfiction stories. And, a large portion of the book takes place in her home country.

"This is a subject that I am interested in," she said, politely taking the book.

For Helen, who speaks Albanian, I chose a photo book with captions. This woman is a riot. She's quick, and will give me instruction when it's needed. She also told me she has a short attention span when it comes to reading, so I figured the shorter, the better.

Helen wants to work on spelling. So, with the help of a workbook, we chose words with similar patterns.

Destruct, destruction and distract, distraction.

Amazingly, both woman seem to have the "tion" ending down.

"It's because when I took my citizen test, I had to say 'citizen, and I would pronounce it 'cit-i-tee-own' " Helen said, like an Italian from Brooklyn.

It's the vowels that confuse both women. And this forces me to enunciate with gusto.

A's are used where u's should be. Destruct becomes Destract, which would be a word if it were spelled Distract...

So, I wrote a list of words on the board.

Up               Sap

Tuck            Tack

Suck            Sack

"Hear the difference? Suuuuuuuuck versus Saaaaaaaack."

It worked. Sort of.

While spelling proved to be challenging. Jane also wanted to work on vocabulary. She has a difficult time recalling words when she wants to. So, we played a game similar to twenty questions. Only instead of me asking, I had her describe objects, locations and occupations.

She did amazing, describing "computer," "Great Wall of China" and "tour guide."

I'm excited to meet with the women this week and go over unfamiliar words in the books I gave them. I hope that they have made progress. Above all though, I hope they know that their hard work will pay off for them.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Time to 'Tackle' English

Teaching is harder than I thought. (Wait for all of the teachers out there to collectively say 'duh').

I knew tutoring ESL would be challenging, I just had no idea how ill-prepared I would be. When I headed over to Highland Thursday, I met Rich Trice, an English teacher at Lakeland High School who is also the instructor for the Adult Basic Education classes and ESL program.

After chatting with him for a bit, he led me to three women who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. The women, all middle-aged, were at varying levels.

One had been here for more than twenty years, and can speak fine, but wants to improve spelling. Another can speak fairly well, but has a hard time recalling words when she needs them. The third needs help in both, but conversation is key.

Before we started with actual work, we chatted. I wanted to get to know them. I asked where they were from, what they do and what they need help with.

I also asked them if they had any questions from the assignment they had been given, and one of the women asked me what "tackle" meant.

"Well, it can be used as a football term," I said, followed by a demonstration. "It's also a verb for when I want to work on a difficult project. I will tackle this assignment and get it done," I added, while I pantomimed by writing furiously.

Then, being a transplant Yooper, I said, "Tackle can also be a fisherman's term. Like, a bunch of lures."

Here, I had went wrong. After describing lures, I went to the board and drew out a fish with hooks.
"See, the bunches of lures is makes tackle."

Then I looked at the full list of words. All of the words were active verbs dealing with sports. Great. Had I confused them more than helping them?

To get the conversation going again, I had two of the women talk to me about their holiday traditions, while having the one who needs spelling help write about it. I was able to read nearly everything that was written, but I think she thought it was horrible, preferring to work on sentences.

This week, I will go back and give it another try. This volunteer stint may take a bit more time. How can I help if I am not a little consistant? It may stray a bit from the blog's original intent, but I think it's worth it.

If anyone has any advice or tips, please contact me. For those who are interested in helping out in the Highland area, please call the Adult Education office at (248) 676-8398 or email

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I Before E Except After C -- Sometimes?

About six months ago, I decided to write a blog on volunteerism. My goal was to work once a week with a nonprofit organization on my own time, and then write about it for one year.

I can't believe I am halfway there. So far, it's been a rewarding if not tough personal challenge. I have met many dedicated people who strive to make the community a better place. I am astounded at the hours people give.

For being a self-described ultimate planner, this project has tested these abilities. It seems I am always struggling to get my gigs in order. Part of this is because I am just not home much. I'm always playing catch up, whether it's laundry or sleep. I am hoping that this fall will give me a better opportunity to get organized.

Today, I will assist with Adult Basic Education and English as a Second Language classes with Huron Valley Schools.

I've never done anything like this before, so I am not sure what to expect. But I do know how wonderful and complicated the English language can be, and I am hopeful that this might end up being a monthly volunteer gig.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Prison Break

Cinderella chills in the grass.
Hanging with my new pals, Cinderella and Uncle Charlie, proved to be both tiring and gratifying, during a crisp weekday morning. My temporary four-legged friends are animals that I wish I could have, but unfortunately, don't have enough time for. Fortunately, there are volunteer opportunities that allow me to hang with the pooches on a short-term basis.

Before work Wednesday morning, I stopped off at the Oakland County Adoption Center to see what I could help with. When I opened the doors, chaos and a cacophony greeted me. Dogs on leashes were going out and coming in, people were crowding a reception area, and the noise is too jarring to recreate.

This was a little different than what I expected.

After getting a brief orientation and a leash, I got Cinderella, a reddish fawn colored dog of some mixed breed. She was beyond eager to get outside for some playtime. We walked around for a while on the grass near the building, and some defunct looking detention center. I decided to take her to a fairly large-sized fenced in park, and threw some tennis balls for her to fetch. Someone should have taught Cinderella the rules, because I spent most of my time retrieving the ball instead of having them dropped at my feet. Since Cinderella wasn't interested in games, I just ran next to her and gave lots of rubs and "good girls" in my animal voice. You know the voice, thick, syrupy -- the one that's used on babies and drives people nuts.

After about a half-hour, I decided I should give another dog a chance at some freedom. I met another volunteer, Sue, who said she usually walks the dogs for fifteen minutes so that they all get a chance for some fresh air. I figured I made Cinderella's day.

While I enjoy walking the dogs, there does seem to be some disorganization. There is no clipboard or sheet showing which dogs have been walked. So, I asked Sue if she knew what dog I should take, and she suggested Uncle Charlie. This dog is big, black and perhaps a husky, lab mix. At twelve years old, he was much mellower than Cinderella, but proved to be a fun companion.

After another half-hour, I brought him back in. I'm not going to lie, the cages make me sad. Talk about sterile -- there are no blankets or toys in the cages. Instead, the cages are made up of a thick wire bottom so that when the animal goes to the bathroom, a mop can be used to clean up without ever having to open the door. But I do realize the restraints that Oakland County has and what it can provide.

Even more depressing, cats were everywhere in cages, lining the walls. I was told there were more than three hundred, and that some would be euthanized if they couldn't be adopted out. I know some people will rant and rave that I went did not go to a specific "no kill" shelter. But no-kill shelters have a limit on what they take, and so does the county. So, if you know anyone wants a kitten or cat, please stop on by. There were cats of all ages, sizes and colors.

Volunteers are always welcome to walk dogs or pet and comb the cats after submitting a volunteer form. I will surely go back again.

To check it out, visit Oakland County Adoption Center.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What's That Smell?

The headless goose! Below, Jac with some sort of
cord in her hand. Does the beach need to be plugged in?
I've known it for a while, but I am a beach snob.

When I arrived at Metro Beach Saturday morning, I quickly realized that this beach was not made up of the sandy dunes I had enjoyed during my youth; I should've worn my rubber boots. Along the shoreline, thick clumps of some sort of putrid plant growth mingled with inches of muck. The wind was blowing, and with it, the stench of rot.

"Oh my God, what is that smell?" I asked.

And it wouldn't be the last time I would whine about the odor, as my friend Jacquelyn Gutc, patiently waited for me to stop gagging.

We pulled our sweatshirt hoods up over our heads and grabbed some garbage bags. Strolling along the sand, we picked up strewn litter as part of the Adopt-a-Beach day, part of the larger International Coastal Cleanup Day staged by the Ocean Conservancy. In Michigan and three other Great Lakes states, Clean Water Action and The Alliance for the Great Lakes partnered for the project.

When we had found everything that we could along the beach, we started climbing along slabs of concrete riddled with rebar. Clutching to the rocks, I ambled down to the shore and dug out a goose decoy while Jacquelun laughed and took photos of my backside.

"No butt shots," I told her.

"I'm getting a bit of everything."

Other than a bottle of Jack Daniels, a few flip flops and other refuse, the oddest thing I found was the decoy lodged deep beneath the muck. My guess is that it had floated away from someone's lakeside home. The trash had found it's way from fishing boats, homeowners and parkgoers.

Jaquelyn and I were both disgusted by what seemed like needless waste. Was someone so tired during a jog that a water bottle had to be thrown along the rocks, instead of recycled?

While we were happy enough to rock climb, we do wish we had been better prepared for this type of beach. And because we didn't have anything other than our gloved hands to pick up trash, we decided to keep a bit of rebar to use as a way of grabbing more litter. But instead, it ended up in one of the garbage bag, eventually puncturing it. So instead of two half bags full of crap, I was lugging one very heavy bag. I have to give it up to Jac though, when we switched off, she didn't look nearly as winded as I had.

After about an hour and a half, we headed back to the group, and tossed our bag in with the rest. A group of students and other volunteers had collected more than a dozen bags. Looking through some of the items others had found, the biggest find seemed to be a vehicle tire. This garbage breaks down on the shore and goes back into the water.

Our beach captian, Julie Blazejewski of Clean Water Action, said the beaches have been getting worse.

"It's getting trashier," she said, "just in the last two years."

She said it's not just more trash, but the unusual nature of it as well. Her goal with Clean Water Action is to get the word out to people, but with less funding, they've cut back. Now, the goal is to work with politicians to push clean water bills.

This is an event that I plan to attend in the future, but maybe I'll try something in the Port Huron area. In the meantime, I sincerely hope that people will make a better effort to keep our state gems a cleaner, healthier place for the future.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Beach Bum

Above, view of the beach from Little Presque Isle in Marquette. Below,
one of the quieter beaches in Marquette. You would've ditched class, too!

Summertime in Northern Michigan revolves around the Great Lakes. For me, turning 16 meant that I could drive myself through the winding country roads that would lead me to Sturgeon Bay.

Between my two summer jobs, I lived at the beach. I usually arrived to the golden dunes around ten in the morning. My goal was to be there first. Many times, a few bird-watchers would beat me. But for the most part, it was just me.

By around noon, a few friends would arrive, and a few hours later, I was packing up my gear to get ready for work. On my days off, I spent about eight hours languishing in the sand, gobbling up books and listening to the waves.

In college, at Northern Michigan University, I was surrounded by beaches along Lake Superior's coastline. I was lucky enough to live only a few blocks from a local hot spot. Many nights, after waiting tables, I would walk a few blocks with Rob as we watched the lights from freighters. It was a perfect place to relax. I even ditched a couple of classes every fall to soak up a few more UV rays before the dreaded winters covered the dunes.

The Great Lakes feel like home to me. Being so far from them has been the hardest adjustment for me in my new home in metro Detroit (and of course, the traffic).

But this weekend, I will be able to give back to the Lakes that have given me so much. A co-worker told me she heard something on the radio about beach clean-up efforts. I looked up the Alliance for the Great Lakes, and sure enough, all along beaches this Saturday, volunteers will make efforts to clean the shoreline.

I will be helping out at Metro Beach in Mount Clemens with my friend and the husband (he doesn't know yet). The beach is on Lake St. Clair, which flows into Huron.

If you love and appreciate all of the beautiful lakes Michigan has to offer, check out the list of events by visiting

Friday, September 17, 2010

The "Mane" Event

Waterford Township fireman Mike Reiter
assists rider Jeramiah Maguran at a past
OATS "Mane" event.
The sky was gray and murky puddles formed in the mud from the recent downpours that pelted Southeastern Michigan. I had scrambled out of work and arrived at OATS (Offering Alternative Therapy with Smiles) around 4:30 — a half-hour later than I had wanted. A handful of riders were already in the arena on horses. I took over with one, which freed Lynn Daniels up to instruct. The young woman I walked alongside was independent and easy to talk to. I started to relax. It was nice to be away from a cubicle and be near animals and people.

Since I can't make it to the OATS "Mane" Event on Sunday, I wanted to be sure I could at least help out beforehand, because Nancy Heussner, owner of OATS, said volunteers are scarce in the fall.

The event is a once-a-year shindig, starting out with a pancake breakfast. About fifty to sixty riders have registered to take part in the horse show, and spectators are encouraged to partake. Vendors and games will be available as well. All of the riders go home with trophies. The hardware is refurbished — whether it's from a past bowling or baseball championship, Nancy makes it special for the riders.
After about twenty minutes, the second batch of riders arrived. I was matched with a gentleman who was much more nervous than the previous rider. Nancy handled it like a pro, though. She's like a mother — she loves you, but she doesn't put up with crap. When the rider got agitated, she started asking him about dinner, the horse, anything to relax him. When he said he was tired, she reminded him that we hadn't even started yet.

We took the horses and riders to the outdoor arena — the fresh, cool air was refreshing. I was glad I'd grabbed some old shoes, because it was swampy outside. After about an hour, we headed back in, and I watched as more experienced volunteers untacked the horses.

I stayed a bit longer and chatted with Nancy while I attempted to take notes with my now cold, uncooperative fingers, for a small print article. She spoke emotionally about how hard this month has been, and I found myself fighting tears. She talked about how this month reminds her of people who had supported OATS, who are no longer alive. It was hard to watch this rough 'n' tumble woman get emotional. I doubt she told me everything, and who would? I'm still a reporter with a notepad in my hand. What impresses me though, is how she focuses on the riders. No matter what may be happening in her personal life, she keeps it professional for them. It was only once they were gone that it fully started leaking through.

OATS is such a special place, and it's in part, because of Nancy's passion. To learn more about that passion, check out the "Mane" Event, which begins at 8:30 a.m. with a pancake breakfast. followed by the horse show at 9:30 and lunch at 11:30. The event will also feature clowns, music, train rides, games and vendors at Springfield Oaks Park, 12451 Andersonville Road at the Oakland County Fair Grounds. For more information, visit

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Weary Wednesday

After eleven straight hours at work yesterday, and a turn-around early shift today, it's been a hectic week. I was supposed to volunteer this weekend, however, an opportunity to do some more freelance work Up North came up that I didn't want to pass on.

So, last night, still clicking away, I called OATS (which was where I was supposed to volunteer this weekend) to see what I could do. OATS - Offering Alternative Therapy with Smiles - works with individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities.

Classes have begun in the evenings, and Nancy told me to come on over. My guess is that I will be doing duties similar to the last time I was there, which is buddying up with a kid and helping lead the horse. It will be good to get out of the office, and be around people and animals.

I've got my 'get-dirty clothes' stashed in my purse, and if I can get out of a meeting early, I might just make it on time.

Wish me luck!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Save the Girls!

Patricia Nolf speaks about the PRT.
My alarm started ringing before seven on Saturday morning. After hitting the sleep button three times, I stumbled out of bed.

"I want to pick that thing up and throw it against the wall," I told my husband, who nestled deeper in between the sheets. As a teacher, he wakes up around five in the morning, so I'm betting he was smiling on the inside that I had to get out of bed before him for once.

Even as excited as I was to help out at the Pink Ribbon Trailblazers walk, run and bike event, getting up earlier than I normally do on a weekend did not appeal to me. But as I listened to the oldies on the car radio, my attitude changed.

Forty-five minutes later, I pulled into the library's grassy lawn in Oxford. I was surprised to see it already set up to resemble a Pepto Bismol ad. I had actually arrived five minutes earlier than what I was told. But not to fear, the auction was heating up and there was plenty to do. Donated items of golf gift baskets, fruit, jewelry and even bikes were on display for auction.

The Trailblazers goal is to provide free mammograms for underserved and uninsured women. The raffle and auctions all help raise funds. And in the past three years, the group has raised more than forty-thousand dollars. After helping women sign up for items, and attempting to start bidding wars, the program began.

While there were many survivors at the event, one woman's speech made me stop what I was doing. She spoke about how she had to decide if she was going to make house payments or health insurance payments. She chose her house. And when she got cancer, her twelve treatments of chemotherapy cost seven thousand dollars each.

A few more speeches followed, and then the athletes started stretching for the event. What I love about the Trailblazer event is that it is local. After volunteering in Oxford a few times now, the community involvement is inspiring. Husbands supported wives and women supported each other.

Talking to Patricia Nolf after the event, her enthusiasm is contagious. But it's when she talks about her own battles, that I really admire her efforts. Pat has battled breast cancer, and lung cancer twice, telling me, "It will come back." She states this matter-of-factly. But she doesn't worry about it. Instead, she keeps fighting. And what an inspiration that should be to us all. We may not always have control over our circumstances, but that doesn't mean we give up.

This year's event may be over, but donations are always accepted. Check out Pink Ribbon Trailblazers.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Great Reason to Wear Pink

In high school, my best friend's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. One day, she crumpled in front of her locker and sobbed. With her boyfriend on one side and me on the other, we watched emotions gush out of her as others walked by oblivious to what was happening.

Not being able to help someone you care for is one of the worst feelings I have had. Homework stresses, love quarrels, and teen angst are nothing compared to the "C-word."

Her mother, thankfully, did survive after multiple surgeries and treatments. And while I couldn't do much for her then, my next volunteer gig is for her and her family.

I will be helping out at the fourth annual fundraising event with the Pink Ribbon Trailblazers tomorrow morning.

I met Patricia Nolf during a volunteer stint in Oxford with the Downtown Development Authority in July. Dressed completely in pink attire, Patricia asked me if I would be interested in helping out. A breast cancer survivor herself, Patricia founded the organization and ensures that all money assists women in Oakland County.

Money raised goes toward providing free mammograms to uninsured and underserved women. The fundraiser this weekend is a walk, run and bike ride along the Polly Ann Trail in Oxford. Patricia and I have hashed around ideas for what I can do, including registration, giving drinks at rest points and working the auction.

Whatever my role, I'm excited to see athletes of all abilities come together for a common cause — and it gives me a great reason to wear some pink!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Do 'do-gooders' irk you?

A week ago, a friend told me about a conversation she had with one of our co-workers.

She had signed up to do some volunteering over the holiday weekend, and was rebuffed by a young man we both work with.

"Oh, are you doing that with Val?"

When she replied that she was volunteering of her own volition, she got an "Ohhhhh," accompanied by a confused look. 

Apparently, it's cool for me to volunteer because of my project and blog, but for others, why bother?

This reminded me of a study I recently saw reported on the blaring TV behind me at work. The results of the study indicated that people hate do-gooders because they make others look bad.

So I dug around to read more about the Washington State University study.

Here's an excerpt from the report:

"The studies gave participants — introductory psychology students — pools of points that they could keep or give up for an immediate reward of meal service vouchers. Participants also were told that giving up points would improve the group’s chance of receiving a monetary reward.

"In reality, the participants were playing in fake groups of five. Most of the fictitious four would make seemingly fair swaps of one point for each voucher, but one of the four often would make lopsided exchanges - greedily giving up no points and taking a lot of vouchers or unselfishly giving up a lot of points and taking few vouchers.

"The study revealed that unselfish colleagues come to be resented because they 'raise the bar' for what is expected of everyone. As a result, workers feel the new standard will make everyone else look bad, according to the study."

The study further indicated that while people disliked incredibly greedy people, they felt the same toward generous people.

I shouldn't be surprised by the study. It's like watching the kid who constantly raises his or her hand in math class (I was that kid in English class, but I detest math, so I'll pick on that student instead). I certainly don't see myself as better than my peers for volunteering — especially when I enjoy it — but I also won't care too much if I'm hated or not. I'm a journalist after all.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Boxing up Some Meds

Samika Hudson of Pontiac sorts through
medications. The box was so big, we had
to have it flipped so we could get through it.
There's nothing better than really enjoying volunteering, because not all volunteer dates are enjoyable. Gleaners never fails, though.

I popped into the warehouse a little after eight in the morning, and started boxing medications that would be sent to Gleaners partners. I spent most of my time checking labels (something that the food drive in Holly prepared me for) and started boxing them up. This wasn't exactly fast packing. At least two garbages were filled with expired medications in the two hours I packed.

While there, I met Samika Hudson of Pontiac who spends twenty hours a week helping out.

"I like it," she said. "It helps out the community, and I'll do anything for that because I'm a part of it. And the staff is wonderful."

A Rochester Adams student who is acquiring hours for National Honor Society was also helping out. In a different area, mothers brought their children to help pack.

The morning went by pretty quickly and was convenient for me to do before work at the OP. While there, I learned that Gleaners is ramping up its efforts. The Detroit Distribution Center is offering bus tours, so people can see where the food goes and who it helps. From soup kitchens to pantries, visitors will get an up-close look at who Gleaners helps.

Gleaners is also hosting a fundraising breakfast Oct. 14 in Troy.

To learn more about tours, visit, call Denise Leduc at 866-GLEANER ext. 404 or e-mail her at Contact Denise regarding the breakfast as well.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How Can You Help Fight Hunger?

For some reason, I have three volunteer gigs scheduled throughout September, but I had nothing for this week. After spending yet another relaxed weekend in Northern Michigan, I came back to work feeling like a batch of scrambled eggs.

The upcoming holiday weekend didn't make it any easier to schedule volunteer time, either. I even asked for suggestions through Twitter. I received some suggestions, but none for this week. After searching online and even through the good ole' Oakland Press volunteer listings, I gave up and called Sarah Blight at Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan. It's been a couple of months since I visited Gleaners, and I really enjoyed my time there. I'm looking forward to going back.

This is one of the nice things about having some places that can always use help, while offering flexible hours. Gleaner's is also sponsoring "September is Hunger Action Month: 30 Ways in 30 Days." The nonprofit is asking volunteers to help out, while offering easy-to-follow tips. It even has a calendar on its website full of events to help fight hunger, from golf fundraiser events, to texting donations. It only takes one dollar to make three meals. That's why even though food donations are always needed and appreciated, Gleaner's can get more food with cash because it can buy in bulk.

I've said it before: There is no season for hunger. Please check out the website and see how your time and money can make a difference in your community at

Friday, August 27, 2010

Volunteers Needed at OPC

Marye Miller, Older Persons' Commission executive director, can always use volunteer help. Call 248- 608-0270 to find out how you can help at the next event!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sashaying Under the Stars in a Moonlit Parking Lot

Kathy Vargas of Rochester Hills got decked out
in party gear for the Island Party.
The moon was full, the air was warm and I was wrapped in the arms of my dance partner, Ralph, when the silky lyrics of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On" started spilling out of the speakers.

"Just loosen up your knees a bit, and try to feel the music," Ralph said as I attempted to sway with him along the asphalt parking lot of the Older Persons' Commission in Rochester.

My evening volunteering at the Island Party, (not Luau), was full of wild costumes, line dancing, and even a blue mermaid. Seniors danced to classic favorites like Elvis and Jimmy Buffet. They rocked out to Funky Cold Medina and the latest hits by Lady Gaga. More than 300 people attended the event, proving the old adage that age truly is a state of mind.

When I arrived on the island, I was pleasantly surprised by the careful detail put into the ambiance. Tables were decorated with candles and leis. A DJ was setting the mood with Beach Boy hits, and well-organized lines of people were loading up on island-themed food of pulled-pork sandwiches, fresh fruits and pastas. I assisted in the food line and helped load up and deliver a plate to one woman who had a bandaged arm. After that, we cleaned the area and served refreshments — a frozen concoction of pineapple, orange and banana mix served with festive umbrellas.

The event was not just a big party though, it was also a way for the OPC to make much-needed money. Because the commission is millage funded, and home values have continued to decline, the OPC has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Recently, the community overwhelmingly passed a millage increase — 2,073 to 423 — and that, says OPC Executive Director Marye Miller, says a lot.

"I'm a strong believer in seniors having their own facility," Miller said, adding that even though funds are down, she will not see the OPC lose a program or service. And while many people look at the OPC as a fun place to hang out, it offers more. Medical care is available at the OPC, and the commission offers adult daycare for patients with Alzheimer's disease among many of its programs.

"There's a lot of work to keep older people living with dignity in their home," she said. "The staff is so dedicated, even though they haven't had a raise in three years."

The staff also seems to love what they do. I worked alongside Rhonda Nelson, who coordinated the festivities, as well as Meg Baker, who had contacted me about volunteering. There were more than fifty volunteers at the event. The Rochester Adams High School football team helped set up the tables and chairs during the day and came back to help pick it all back up around nine-thirty that night. The Rochester Junior Woman's Club (yes, it's Woman's) were on hand helping from set-up to serving food.

The OPC is unlike any senior facility I have visited. It's a whole hip community. Women wore thigh-high skirts, and sparkly heels as they sauntered in the conga line.

"Yes, that's sexy! I like that!" the Austin Power-like DJ crooned out as men and women dipped and bended to get under the bamboo pole.

As the sun settled in for the night, I took my turn on the sidelines, and watched Ralph dance with another woman as other couples held each other tight, and I thought about how lucky I was to be a part of it all.

The Older Persons' Commission is always looking for volunteers for it's services and events. Check out the website at

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Grass Skirts and Coconut Bras

Things seem to be gelling lately, and, for that, I am thankful.

While I usually scramble to get volunteer gigs scheduled, people started calling me for once. One of those calls is sending me to the Older Persons' Commission in Rochester for a Hawaiian Luau (is there any other kind?) tonight. I'm going to help with whatever they need, from refreshments to clean up.

I have been to the OPC only once — and that was on assignment. I've never seen a center like this; it's larger than most high schools. Couples in matching track suits played pickleball and jammed to The Beatles. Men lounged on fun noodles in the heated pool while a water aerobics class took place in the larger adjacent pool. The OPC is the mecca of fitness centers, with gyms rivaling the best of college facilities. There are cafes, language labs, and art classes, too.

The only problem with this amazing gym: I'm too young to join. Nowhere will you see women in sports bras and spandex racing along a treadmill gasping for air, or men grunting as they lift weights the size of a car. This is for seniors only. One man told me attending the center has given him purpose. It's the new town cafe, only the patrons lift dumbbells and coffee mugs all while sporting the latest Adidas.

And of course, the center throws soirees. I'm excited to hang out with the oldsters and chat with them.  I use this term affectionately — oldsters are like the classic roadster, it's had some miles on it, the styling may not be the same as newer models, but if the recent Woodward Dream Cruise is any indication, it's well worth admiring.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Giving up the Booty

The Motor City Mad Men (right) stand by some of their donations. Rob (below) hands out a voucher, while Yvette Saylor sorts.

While many people may have spent their Sunday morning on wooden pews or reading the Times with a cup of coffee, my husband Rob and I were surrounded by wenches, maidens, knights and even fairies.

No, we weren't watching the SciFi Channel, we were at the Renaissance Festival in Holly.

"Oh my God," Rob said. "They're in costume."

My husband, though a fan of "Lord of the Rings," is not a fan of dress up. He'll watch any team throw or catch a ball, but watching men in tights, he'll pass: "I hate you."

I have to admit, the Ren Fest isn't exactly a place that I get geared up to visit. I don't read or watch fantasy-type books or movies. I felt like I had entered the set of "Role Models" minus the surly Paul Rudd character.

But we weren't there to hang out and watch jousting matches, we were there to help Lighthouse of Oakland County for its annual food drive. Lighthouse of Oakland County, Inc. provides services to low-income families in order to assist people in becoming self-sufficient. Last year, Lighthouse helped families and individuals on 70,000 occasions. This includes not only providing food, but even emergency funds among other things.

The story remains the same: The poor economy is affecting everyone.

"We are seeing a lot more need," said Holly Ellis, manager of Housing and Wrap-Around Services. "And the need is from people who we wouldn't normally see."

Because it's summer, donations are also down. Before this drive, the pantry was near bare, Ellis said, adding that this food will last only until Thanksgiving.

As we frantically sorted, packaged, and labeled boxes for three and a half hours, we met a lot of people who wanted to give back. It's beyond a great deal to donate the nonperishable goods. Four items will get patrons a voucher for a buy-one-get-one ticket; essentially a free ticket worth about twenty dollars. This deal continues through the weekends until Labor Day.

While there, I worked alongside Yvette Saylor of Clarkston. A true volunteer, Yvette spent thirteen and a half hours this weekend at the food drive. She was a great leader and teammate, helping me locate expiration dates on food items. Yvette helps out at a variety of places, including schools and senior centers. She chose to help out this weekend because it helps those in need she said, adding "And it makes me more grounded in life."

At one point, after stepping away to interview Holly, I came back to a table full of items dropped off by about forty bikers — the Waterford Motor City Mad Men. It took us nearly a half-hour to get all of the food sorted and packed just from that one drop off.

Despite the fact that we worked nearly nonstop, I don't even know if I could call this Sunday's endeavor true volunteering. Both Rob and I were given free tickets to go to the festival, along with food vouchers — and the food is tasty! We were able to wander the booths, see jugglers and get transported to another world, all for a few hours worth of work.

Volunteers are still needed for the upcoming food drives. And for those who love the Renaissance Festival, it's an amazing incentive to work a few hours to get a free ticket to partake in the fun. Lighthouse has plenty of other opportunities available as well, and it can always use donations.

To learn more, visit
To volunteer, call Tricia Pulis at 248-920-6000.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Match Me Up Please

I'm back from a week-long vacation and find myself scrambling to get a volunteer gig. While I was gone, I had a message on my answering machine asking for help in September, and a different request was e-mailed. I'm excited that people are sending me ideas. But this week, I'm still figuring out what to do.

There are some places I could revisit, like Gleaners, one of my favorites. I could also check out the community farm if I really want some exercise. I've also put in a call to help out Lighthouse of Oakland County at the Renaissance Festival for their food drive this weekend. For now, it's up in the air, but I have to make a decision soon to keep up the pace.

This is what happens when I leave for a week. In preparation for a long absence, I am consumed with getting my own work done ahead of time. For would-be volunteers who want to get out and help the community, there are a variety of helpful websites out there ready to assist.

Create the Good (by AARP) is one of the many helpful sites that match volunteers to organizations seeking help. Just type in a Zipcode and the site pulls up a variety of opportunities. It also lists helpful tips for volunteers.

Volunteer Match offers the same types of services and shares volunteer stories. Both sites encourage volunteering, and the positive stories keep me refueled. Even O.A.T.S. — my last volunteer effort — is listed on Create the Good seeking volunteers.

Many county websites also offer a list of organizations seeking help. I've also had people e-mail or tell me about ideas — though some require a long-term commitment that I cannot give at this time, but would like check out in the future.

Remember that help is needed during all seasons, and as corny as it may seem, your efforts matter, whether it's a one-time thing or a long-term commitment.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Taking the Lead

Campers blow bubbles while others finish up lunch.

Dust floated in the hot, humid air as children sat atop horses, circling an outdoor arena. Instructors called out techniques, like reverse and follow the leader, and the riders would turn around and zig zag behind another rider.

"Nichole, can't you ride independent?" the instructor asked.

"No, I can't."

"Yes she can," the instructor said to me. "She's just being stubborn."

After a few more prods, I unclasped the lead from Boomer, a quarter horse, and let Nichole ride. She looked good. She knew when to pull on the reins to slow Boomer down and how to turn him.

Nichole was my buddy for the day. And while I continually told her how well she was doing, and she continually told me how bad she was doing, she still rode. I'd look up, and I would catch a smile on her face. She was loving it.

My day at O.A.T.S. (Offering Alternative Therapy with Smiles) started with some art projects with Nichole. I was a bit nervous after meeting her. It's been a while since my baby sitting days, and I haven't had a lot of time with children. Many tend to be shy around new people. My goal was to get her to talk with me and have some fun.

We talked about her sister, her pets and her favorite color — light pink — while we colored exotic animals out of large books. I told her about my first dog, Dodie, and how I would feed her bologna while I paint her toenails a bright red.

At O.A.T.S. there is no sitting around. Children with either cognitive, physical or both disabilities are encouraged to be active, even if they aren't riding. One young man did not want to do arts and crafts, but the volunteers encouraged him to try.

"No, I don't want to do it," he repeated.

"Just try. It's good for your hand muscles," a volunteer urged.

Many of the volunteers are matched with a buddy. And while I feel fairly confident around horses, I was a bit nervous to be in charge of one carrying a young child. Luckily, at O.A.T.S., there are helping hands that can walk alongside and offer instruction. A blonde, lithe, twelve-year-old girl helped me, talking up a storm as she manhandled Boomer when he tried to go off the beaten path. She, too, has a love of horses, and wants to own a ranch in Wyoming with her friend when she grows up. She's kind to the the camp kids, but she's no slouch.

When it came time for Nichole to slalom the orange safety cones, and she refused, my little helper did not back down.

"Well, you have to do it. The instructor said so."

And after a couple more loops, Nichole started to take control.

O.A.T.S. is a gem in Oakland County. For a while, I thought maybe I had left the metro Detroit area as we walked along wooded trails outside of the arena. Volunteers led the horses for a bit more than a half-hour. If I had been concerned about getting in some exercise for the day, I certainly wasn't after leading Boomer. Small circles of sweat were forming on my shirt and my palms were black from the lead.

After the ride, kids grabbed their lunches and ate on picnic tables. After lunch, they put on beach gear and head to the pond to swim or play on paddle boats. I had to leave for the day, and get ready for work, so I missed the water fights that I'm sure followed. Before I left though, I said good bye to Nichole and gave her a hug. I wish I could've stayed longer and built a stronger connection with these kids, many of them who have come to the camp for years. But it was an experience that I hope to have again in the future.

To learn more about donating or volunteering at O.A.T.S., visit

Monday, August 2, 2010

Lead Me to the Horses

Lynn Daniels and O.A.T.S. Founder Nancy Heussner in front of a pasture.

As I pulled up to the barn at O.A.T.S. (Offering Alternative Therapy with Smiles) I was greeted by Nancy Heussner as she finished instructing another volunteer. Wearing shorts and a sweatshirt, Nancy is a very fit and enthusiastic woman who clearly loves what she does. Her barn and arenas are clean and cheerful. Bunches of yellow and purple flowers are planted on either side of the barn door. As she led me around the grounds, she talked to me about the program.

O.A.T.S. provides year round equine-assisted therapy on a weekly basis to more than one-hundred children and adults with a wide variety of physical and/or emotional disabilities. The group relies heavily on volunteer participation. Like most volunteer gigs, I had to sign a waiver.

"But if you get hurt, we just bury you in the back," Nancy said with a laugh. It was funny the first time, but I started to worry after she said it a third time. Just in case, I assured her that my husband has fantastic health care so she should do whatever it takes if I get injured! I soon learned that I had nothing to fear. We started the day by feeding the horses. As we walked past a long row of stalls, she opened an electric door. But before she opened the gate, she yelled, "Stay up on the ramp."

I hopped up and was soon glad for the warning. Large horses of all breed and size barreled past me eager to get to their feed. It never ceases to amaze me how smart animals are — the horses have their own stalls and they all seemed to know where to go. After we locked each stall for them to eat, we took a ranger vehicle out to the pasture to spread hay for the animals. This is where I learned that Nancy also attended Northern Michigan University — it was an instant bond.

Most of these horses are older, and because they are prone to arthritis they spend much of their time outdoors. On this breezy summer day, I couldn't imagine a better place. While we were feeding the horses, a perky 19-year-old blonde joined us and took over my tutelage. Lynn Daniels of Clarkston has been working with O.A.T.S. for years, and she loves what she does.

"The best thing about this is just watching how the kids progress and how it benefits them," she said. "You accomplish the impossible."

During her tenure, she said she has seen children who initially hide in the car and refuse to talk learn to ride independently.

"Some people will tell us that the kids are nonverbal. Fine, but that doesn't mean we aren't going to talk to them."

It's hard to imagine Lynn at a loss of words — this coming from yours truly, the queen of motor mouths. Bubbly may be the best way to describe Lynn, and I can't imagine a more suited personality to help children with disabilities. In some cases, she said the children do end up talking. She's also seen parents who were told that their children would never walk, do just that.

O.A.T.S. offers both riding lessons and extended day camps. Nobody is treated differently here. Riding the horses helps the riders improve balance, flexibility, muscle strength and tone. The program also strives to develop communication, listening and attention skills as well as building confidence and self esteem.

Nancy only has two part-time employees. The rest are all volunteers. Work never lacks at O.A.T.S. After feeding horses, I mucked stalls — though really I just had to scoop poop. I also helped sweep part of the barn where the horses had tracked in mud. Tomorrow, I plan on actually meeting the kids and leading them on the horses. I'm excited to meet the children and see what O.A.T.S. is really about. So far, I'm impressed. Horse enthusiasts should check out the organization to get their daily dose of O.A.T.S.

To learn more about O.A.T.S., visit