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.