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