Friday, May 28, 2010

Two Months Down, Ten to Go

Nearly two months into this journey of philanthropy, and I'm still finding plenty of volunteer opportunities to keep me busy once a week. I've logged in more than twenty hours, and have many more to go.

The hardest part, however, hasn't been the actual volunteering, it's been setting up volunteer gigs that will work with my hectic schedule. I live for the weekends (though I try to make every day count), so I don't want to be stuck every Saturday working. Call me lame. Call me a bum. I don't care. I want to be by a lake on the weekends with friends and family enjoying the few warm months Michigan offers.

Luckily, many people have been helpful enough to accommodate my schedule. I have been mainly volunteering after work. My next stop, however, is with Gleaners on Wednesday morning before I hit the cubicle and a day of deadlines.

I figured since I just worked at the garden for DTE, I might as well check out Gleaners as well. Last year, Gleaners distributed more than thirty-million pounds of emergency food to more than four-hundred partner soup kitchens, shelters and pantries in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston and Monroe counties, according to its website. I'm confident that this will be a worthwhile stint.

On the whole, the experience has been somewhat surprising. I have worked with groups that I would like to continue with after this project, and others that just aren't for me. The hardest part is writing honestly.

It's all perspective and observation on my part. I don't want to portray organizations negatively, but sometimes, aspects of the project have not been all positive.

After one of my earlier volunteer jobs, I had a call from a woman who did not want to be featured, even though she had agreed during the interview. In journalism, this sometimes happens, and we as writers have to decide what is more important — getting the story, or keeping a potential source for future stories.

There have been other times when I just don't feel like volunteering, but because I have made a pact with myself, I go out anyway — even if it means that the laundry continues to pile skyward.
It's also not cheap. I've spent at least fifty dollars on supplies, not including gas.

For now, though, I'm forgetting about deadlines and volunteering. I'm going to focus on enjoying the Memorial Weekend, and I hope you all do the same!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Down and Dirty

Me (right) with a lot of weeds. Kathy (below) uprooting some vile plant.

Kneeling in the hot sun, covered in dirt, my coworker Kathy Blake and I pulled and yanked ferocious weeds from the DTE Energy Community Garden in Pontiac. The mercury had risen above eighty degrees, but thankfully, clouds provided a bit of shelter for the two hours we played in the soil.

When I first arrived, I parked behind the Gleaners building and saw a small, neat garden in what appeared to be an empty lot. I grabbed my hoe and backpack and walked over.

"Are you looking for the community garden?" asked a man who was hosing down his driveway.


Laughing, he said, "It's across the street. That's my garden."

I had wondered why the garden was so small. But as I directed my gaze to where the man pointed, I couldn't see the community garden. The reason, I found out, was that it resembled sod.

The garden had two rows of neatly planted tomatoes and onions. The rest was waiting for us to give it a good digging. A creepy, crawly vine-like grass covered most of the garden. Dandelions the size of oak trees had grown deep roots, roots that my meager spade could not dislodge. So, I dug out what I could, and like a man sweeping dirt under the rug, buried it underneath the soil.

There's something gratifying about gardening. It's purposeful and it's tiring.
Kathy and I talked about our lives and our work. Dare I say we bonded while we kneeled, clearing paths? It's cheesy, but yes. Our cleared row was not neat, but it was improved.

"It must be because of my astigmatism," Kathy concluded.

This was my favorite volunteering experience yet. I didn't have to talk with strangers after a hectic day. I didn't have to battle traffic. Instead, I did some honest work on a hazy Tuesday evening, knowing that our bit of effort will eventually help feed our community. Does it get any better than that?

To learn more about volunteering at a community garden, call Marc Zupmore at 313-235-3579.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Hangin' with clothes

Marcy Bruhl, manager
at Pendleton Woolen Mills
in Rochester.

After driving for forty minutes through heavy traffic and construction zones, I finally made it to Rochester to pitch in for an Assistance League endeavor.

The Assistance League raises funds — mainly through its resale store, Resale Connection — for philanthropic projects. Money raised is spent on efforts including Operation School Bell, which provides new winter wardrobes for children in need. Other funds are sent to provide assault survivor kits for rape victims. The league also spends time tutoring school children.

On this day, the league had teamed up with a Rochester boutique, Pendleton Woolen Mills, to raise money to help fund these programs. Through Saturday, May 22, shoppers may bring in three items of gently worn clothing and receive 20 percent off their purchase.

Rochester is a happening town. But on this hot, muggy Thursday evening, Pendleton was not. When I walked in, I was greeted by Lorna Salmon from the league and Mary Bruhl, the store manager. The store was full of colorful spring outfits, but no customers.

Mary cares deeply for her community. She not only teamed up with the Assistance League, but also with WHOO U R Upscale Resale for a Cause this same weekend. When one lone customer came in, Mary let her know that she would hold the customer’s items if she wanted to come back later with a donation. She also called regular customers, more than two hundred, to let them know about the promotion.

As nice as it was to talk to Mary and Lorna for an hour, I wondered if I made a mistake coming this day. This is the problem I have run into on my quest.

I had been contacted by an Assistance League member to volunteer after I had asked readers where I could help out next. I was under the impression that my time was needed for this event. But it seems the lines get blurred between my job and my blog. Everyone wants to be recognized, and the Assistance League is a worthy cause, but it didn’t need me this Thursday night. And after working a split shift at The Oakland Press and spending an hour in my car in order to help out, I felt pretty damn useless.

As I left Pendleton, not having talked to one customer, I seriously thought about getting a mani/pedi for thirty-five dollars that I saw advertised at a nearby salon. At least then I could have an experience — even if it wasn’t for a cause other than vanity. Instead, I trudged back to my car, and drove back into the headache of cars and chaos to finish up laying out pages for Sunday's paper.

So, in a selfish plea, I ask shoppers to please visit Pendleton to donate clothes, or check out the Assistance League at

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sheep Happens

The sheep barn (far right), where I mucked. Champagne, (near right) who I brushed.

Fetid and filthy. I like alliteration, but I generally use kinder words. Kinder words, however, could not have described the mess I was wallowing in.

The smell of one hundred outhouses was no match for the sheep barn I was mucking at Hess-Hathaway Farm Park in Waterford Township. I had been flinging the dirty hay into the back of a green pickup truck for nearly two hours and I wasn't even a third of the way done.

The sheep, who had been kicked out of the barn for cleaning purposes, bleated at me — taunting me.

"Sure, you go and play outside in the sun and eat. I'll keep cleaning your shit," I muttered.

I had signed up for this. I had asked for a dirty job, and Farmer Deby Steen had granted my wish. She smiled, knowing that my exuberance for farm work would fade quickly after this chore. She was right.

For two hours, I used a rake and pitchfork to peel layer after layer of hay that the sheep had used to urinate and defecate on during a long, cold winter. Then, Deby and I took the truck and dumped it out it in a field.

The truck is a well-used machine. A thick coating of dust covered the dash that held various tools. Passengers must roll down the window and reach for the handle outside of the door in order to exit the vehicle.

"I love my job," Deby said, while managing the bumpy road. And it's evident. She's strong and kind. She even brought me an egg salad sandwich on a Halloween paper plate while I worked.

A farm is a full-time job, and even with volunteers, I'm not sure how it all gets done. Before I had arrived, parents and children worked together to feed and water the animals. It's pretty amazing to hear a mother and daughter excitedly ask if they can clip rabbit toenails. I wondered, "Am I really in metro Detroit?"

The farm is host to an array of animals, including ducks, goats and a pig. A guinea fowl named Omelet followed Deby around like a little kid as she answered visitor questions. Parents pushed strollers and children petted goats through a wire fence.

Horses are the real thrill, though. Deby, who probably wanted to end on a more positive note, had me brush Champagne, a palomino. It was relaxing as I used a "wash and wax" technique on the surprisingly dusty hair. As a child, I was sometimes called "horse hair" because of my own unruly and course mane. I can now testify that it was never as bad as Champagne's tangles!

I did, however, wimp out on cleaning Champagne's hooves. Deby's stories of being bitten in the nose and having her foot stomped did not instill any courage in me. The tool looks like a medieval torture device, and I am a pacifist.

From grooming horses, to watering chickens, there are many volunteer opportunities at the farm, and not all of them require a pitchfork.Parents and children alike can learn more about the farm experience together at

As I packed up the rest of my belongings and waved a goodbye to Deby and the farm, I knew that I would be back – but hopefully, I will be feeding the animals, not cleaning up after them!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Share your stories!

Before I start playing in barnyard dung tomorrow at Hess-Hathaway Farm Park in Waterford Township for yet another volunteer gig, I am reaching out to you to share stories and photos of your volunteer experiences.

I want to know what you have been up to. Send your photos to: and I will post them into a slideshow. Tell me who you are, where you're from and why you volunteer. Feel free to share any funny stories about your experiences.

For those of you who have some time on your hands and want to get involved, a new opportunity may be able to match you with the perfect volunteer experience.

A volunteer speed matching service will take place at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 20 at Old Town Hall, 486 Mill St. in Ortonville.

The event, which draws heavily on the speed dating craze, will see volunteers move from table to table in a bid to find their perfect match. Local service organizations will organize the whistle-stop first dates and have three minutes to woo potential partners.

It sounds like it will be more successful than speed dating!
Check out

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

And the rains came

The recent downpours made it impossible to work in the community garden yesterday, so it was rescheduled for next week. As project manager Marc Zupmore reminded me, we are at the mercy of Mother Nature.

This unfortunate news left me scrambling to find another volunteer opportunity for this week.

After scouring the Internet and making some calls, a coworker suggested the Hess-Hathaway Farm Park in Waterford Township.

There will be no sleeping in this Saturday or lounging around in PJs; instead, I will be taking care of animals and mucking stalls.

The last time I mucked stalls took place at a dairy farm my cousin worked on in Northern Michigan. The combined smell of ammonia and manure could knock a seasoned cowboy off his horse. It took a couple of hours for my sensitive schnoz to accustom, and I'm wondering what this weekend will bring.

But it's not just my nose I'm worried about. As I look down at my freshly painted red toenails, I can't help but sigh. What the heck do I wear to protect them? I was told rubber boots were good, but I don't own a pair. I guess I will have to don my beloved red sneaks that I wear for yard work.

Oh well, toes can be repainted, but how many opportunities will I get to do some real farm work in the metro Detroit area?

Till then, Cock a doodle doo!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Toil in the soil!

It's time to get my some dirt beneath my fingernails.

Tomorrow, I will volunteer for the DTE Energy Gardens Project in a community garden in Pontiac. The produce that is grown is sent to Gleaners, which provides food for local families in need. In 2009, almost eighteen-thousand pounds of produce was harvested, said Marc D Zupmore, DTE Energy Gardens project manager.

My need to feed others is a genetic trait I inherited from my larger-than-life extended family.

"Do you want a sandwich?" an uncle will ask, followed by an offer for some homemade soup, cake, ice tea, etc.

"No thanks."

"Are you sure? It will just take a minute. You're looking thin."

"Yep, I already ate."

And before I can come up with yet another reasonable excuse why I am not hungry, a plate of food is set before me.

Now, as an adult, I inflict this same force feeding tactic onto friends.

Many of us show love through food, and I am one of those people. And while the majority of Americans attempt to burn off unnecessary consumed calories — myself included — others can only stare at empty cupboards. What's worse, nutritional food doesn't last as long as processed fare, and tends to be pricier. Thus, those suffering from hunger don't always get a nutritional diet from the food they can afford.

The gardens are attempting to make good on both issues by providing fresh, healthy food to people in need. I can't wait to get outside and play in the soil!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Giving dogs a "Pawsitive Start"

Faith plays with her "Easy Button"

Big, small, fluffy and furry, if it barks or meows, I want to cuddle it. I love my own cat, Lina, so much that she travels with my husband and me on many of our frequent trips, contentedly sleeping in her beloved cage in the back seat.

When I see or hear about an animal that is mistreated, I fight back tears. I don't even want to discuss the ASPCA commercial where Sarah McLachlan's music is played while images of cats with missing eyes and scrawny dogs fill the TV screen. And damn SNL for making fun of it!

So it was natural for me to volunteer with an animal rescue group at some point.

I chose the Michigan Humane Society, not to be confused with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The organization has adoption shelters in Detroit, Westland and Rochester Hills and is funded solely from donations. It takes in every animal that is dropped off at its doors, boasting a nearly 100 percent adoption rate. It has even taken in an alligator that was found in Detroit!

While the shelter has an open admission policy, it does evaluate the animals and ensures that they will not pose a danger to the public. Those that would pose a danger are euthanized, but there is no time limit for how long healthy animals can stay.

The society scores high marks for the work it puts into the animals it houses. Every night, volunteers from the Pawsitive Start program work with the dogs.

As I waited for the group, I meandered through the adoption center, looking at all of the dogs and cats that needed homes. An eight-year-old black mammoth of a lab steered me to her cage with her dopey brown eyes. I wanted her. Badly. I can't have a dog now because I'm not home enough to take care of one. But I thought at least for this night, I could pretend.

When the volunteers arrived, I learned that animals get one-on-one attention while learning problem solving skills. Some of the things the trainers work on is having the dogs repeatedly go to their blanket and hit a red button on the floor. When the dog completes the action correctly, one trainer hits a clicker so that the dog recognizes that he or she has acted appropriately. Then, the dog is rewarded with a treat.

My mind wandered a bit as the hand-held device clicked every few seconds, and I imagined myself using it on children, or even husbands. I nearly laughed out loud thinking of using it on my husband and rewarding him with a potato chip after he folded the laundry. "Yes, right! Do it Again!"

I learned other helpful training tips as well: Treats should be small, otherwise, the dog gets lost in the act of chewing and won't remember why he or she is even getting the treat at all. Also, dogs respond best with positive reinforcement. If a dog is misbehaving, such as jumping on someone, it's best to disengage from the dog and leave the room, rather than pushing the dog away.

For my part, I learned some other useful training techniques, while providing treats and love to the dogs. I also mopped up the floor after each dog was through, so that there was no contamination. Since I was a newbie, it was more of a learning experience.

The volunteers, who spend hours with the dogs, love these animals.

"The hard part for me is seeing good dogs stay here week after week," one volunteer said. Their devotion is apparent as they rub the dog's bellies and stroke their ears after training is done.

It wasn't easy watching the dogs being led back into their cages, alone and without a companion to cuddle with under the cover of blankets. I missed Lina then.

But there are ways to help these animals find homes. While the Pawsitive Start program is full at the moment, the society can always use other forms of help. Monetary donations and pet supplies are always welcome. The society also has opportunities for animal lovers to walk the dogs and it is seeking cat trainers.

To learn more about the Humane Society, visit

Monday, May 3, 2010

World class athletes

Oakland Press columnist Jerry Wolffe (an Allstar athlete) with Mr. Norton and myself at the Special Olympics.

The stands were filled with a sea of blue and red as athletes and spectators joined together April 25 for Michigan's Special Olympics 32nd Annual Superstars 2010 event.

College students, the sheriff's department and even a former Detroit Lions player joined together, setting up obstacle courses and even participating in events.

Athletes enjoyed a day of camaraderie and competition, and were rewarded with ribbons and cheers for their efforts.

When I arrived at the games, I joined other volunteers in setting up a course and talking to athletes. I even participated in a relay course. I didn't get the golf balls into the "hole" and I fumbled around some orange cones, but it was worth it to see the other athletes put on their game faces and compete.

For those who have not spent a lot of time around people with cognitive and physical disabilities,
it may be an eye-opening experience. These athletes come to have a good time, but they also take the games seriously.

"People take for granted what they've got," said Karen Kmiecik, Oakland County volunteer coordinator for the Special Olympics. "When they see these kids play and give it their all, they see that things aren't so bad in their lives."

I had my own reasons for volunteering. In high school, I used to stay with Julie, who has Down syndrome, when her parents would leave to watch her younger sister's volleyball games.

Julie is an independent and smart young woman. She didn't really need me, we just hung out when we were together. If Julie felt like cooking something, she did. We watched movies and played board games. Her parents were surprised one night to come home and find that we had been playing games. They said many times, Julie preferred to just be by herself listening to music. I like to think that Julie liked spending time with me because I accepted her for who she was, and she accepted me for who I was. We had fun. She was honest. If she was happy, she hugged you, and if she was upset, she cried. I wish we could all be that brave to show our emotions.

Though I haven't seen Julie in years, I think of her often and the profound difference she has made in my life. So, I wanted to give back in some way, to thank her.

There's something special about watching the games. The athletes have a pureness about them. Many cheered for other teams, which was my main role during the afternoon, and it wasn't a bad way to spend a rainy day.

Eighteen-year-old Anthony Kucharski was one of the competitors with some impressive soccer skills.

His mother, Colleen, participated as well. Anthony, a mega Red Wings fan, made sure to keep tabs on the game score during the day.

"They love to compete," Colleen said. "None of them are losers; they are all winners."

The Special Olympics have several events throughout the year. To get involved, visit