The Gift of Serving Those in Need
Volunteers share goodwill at the holidays – and far beyond
Though retired, Mary Sue Egan of Oak Park sets her alarm for 2 a.m. almost every Saturday and Monday morning. By 3 a.m. she’s at the bedside of a veteran at Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Memorial Hospital in Maywood. The early morning shift is tough to fill for the “No Veteran Dies Alone” program, so the mother of four adult children gladly fills it.
Nearly 40 years ago, Egan’s father, a World War II vet, died during the night, most likely alone, at Hines.
She’s been with many veterans in hospice at Hines. Three have died on her watch. “For the first one, I sang and held his hand,” says Egan, 66, of the veteran, who was not conscious. “It was a powerful experience.”
A former technician at AT&T, Egan is also a longtime volunteer at her Catholic church. “I understand companionship. I know I don’t have to entertain them. I don’t have to be entertained,” she says.
Some of the veterans are alone because their loved ones are far away. Others are estranged from their families. It doesn’t matter — the volunteers step into the gap. “These men served their country,” says Alexi Vahlkamp of Hines, the director of the companionship program. “We support them. We become their family, if necessary.”
Hines has 800 volunteers. Some transport the veterans in wheelchairs around Hines while others escort them on outings, play cards with them or just sit down and share coffee and conversation.
In the world of work, in places large and small that help others, innumerable volunteers are indispensable to meeting fundamental human needs. During the holiday season, people become more interested in volunteering and typically seek out food pantries, homeless shelters and other places where human need is glaring. These facilities continue to need volunteers, perhaps now more than ever, but a vast volunteer network is necessary year-round at less obvious sites. The volunteers fill essential needs — while joyfully realizing the truth of the old adage that in giving they receive.
Gift of Friendship: Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital
For 30 years Jo Ann Schurman has volunteered at the gift shop at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton. Her day involves far more than rotely ringing up transactions at the cash register. She has forged warm relationships with doctors, nurses and, of course, with fellow volunteers. But she also enters the lives, peripherally but still powerfully, of patients recovering from difficult injuries and illnesses.
Rehabilitating patients, accompanied by a therapist, often come to the shop to practice or prove their cognitive abilities, whether it’s remembering what three items to buy or figuring out what can be bought for, say, $25. Observing the parade of people, Schurman is a witness to human resiliency. “One woman came here (to Marianjoy) on a stretcher, and she walked out of here one day. She used to come in here and say, ‘Ah, my Marianjoy Mall,’” says Schurman with a chuckle.
Some volunteer at Marianjoy because of a personal connection to the facility. Schurman exemplifies that. Her late husband, Bruce, was the longtime CEO of Marianjoy. She and her parents also were once patients here. “This place is an important part of my life. It’s part of who I am,” she says. “Like anyone else, I could be having a bad day. But coming here puts things in perspective.”
Marianjoy currently has more than 150 active volunteers. Some are retired. Some are students fulfilling service hour requirements. “We are always looking for more community members who want to make a difference,” says Melissa Mullins, volunteer coordinator.
The medical challenges Marianjoy patients face can be daunting, but not dispiriting. “Most patients here are on the road to recovery,” says Mullins. “The patients are in a happy place. Volunteers interacting with patients get a sense of that joy.”
Gift of Connection: Bridge Communities
John Thacker filled his empty nest by opening his arms to those in need. Since 2012 he’s been a financial mentor for clients of the Glen Ellyn-based Bridge Communities, which provides transitional housing and mentoring for homeless families. “I was in my mid-50s. I had been busy with career and family. Now I had time on my hands,” recalls Thacker. “I don’t know if I’d say it’s a calling. It was a sense of responsibility.”
Thacker, a financial analyst and a Wheaton resident, puts his skills to use providing financial counseling for Bridge families. On Wednesdays he meets with the same family to talk about budgeting, proper use of credit cards and other financial skills. Bridge families, who were formerly homeless, live for two years in a place of their own while they receive career counseling, educational tutoring, the use of a car, if needed, and other services, with the goal of helping the family become self-sufficient within two years.
Since its founding in 1988, the not-for-profit has successfully helped 800 homeless families. Each year 130 families graduate from the program and transition to a permanent home.
Thacker had been charitable, supporting the Loaves and Fishes pantry in Naperville, for instance. But he became a mentor for Bridge Communities because he wanted to be more hands-on, more connected to those in need. “I wanted to do something person-to-person,” says Thacker, whose connection with Bridge Communities came through his church, St. Michael Catholic Church in Wheaton. “I wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus, who helped people. I wanted to walk the talk. It’s about proximity. Don’t be distant. Be a part of what you are involved in.”
Thacker has met with both families he mentored for two years. One had a nice apartment, and the other recently bought a home. “They’re doing very well,” he says.
Bridge Communities relies not only on the time and talent but also the treasure of donors and volunteers. Gift cards to stores such as Target and Old Navy are appreciated. “Parents can purchase clothes for their kids. That’s really important for them around the holidays especially,” says Communications Manager Lisa Doyle. Bridge Communities also needs toiletries, holds a “quarter drive” for coin-operated washing machines, and sponsors a Giving Tuesday on November 28.
Gift of Time: Community Nurse Health Center
The Community Shop just off La Grange Road in downtown La Grange, has a large showroom with first-rate china cabinets, sofas, chairs and a whole array of attractive household items. Bargains abound here. But the biggest bargain is the staff — they work for free. Volunteers sort and price donations and staff the cash register at the resale shop that benefits the Community Nurse Health Center.
Proceeds from the shop support the medical and dental care provided to people with limited means. The medical clinic is right across the street. The dental clinic is upstairs from the shop.
The atmosphere is pleasant. Shoppers love obtaining quality items at discounted prices and knowing their purchases help those in need. Many volunteers have been here for years. Marge McGrath, 91, is a 35-year veteran. “I love it,” says McGrath of Indian Head Park, whose husband died in 2004. “I need to fill time. It’s fulfilling. You meet new people. I’d feel guilty if I stayed at home.”
Sandy Ewalt of Westchester began volunteering five years ago. “I lost my husband, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. My doctor recommended I come here. He volunteered here,” says Ewalt, who worked at Jewel before retiring. “I’m giving my time for something worthwhile. It makes me feel good.”
Customers are coming in steadily on this afternoon. But when the traffic lags McGrath and Ewalt share small talk. The camaraderie among volunteers helps deepen their commitment to showing up day after day, year after year, without a paycheck.
“There’s a sense of community here,” says Sue Paice, volunteer coordinator. “It feels like a family. People get to know each other. They’re civic-minded people. They relate to one another.”
Gift of Service: Salvation Army
Around the holidays, everyone sees the bell ringers for the Salvation Army. Those are volunteers. What few know is that the Salvation Army relies on, yes, an army of volunteers, all year-round and not just at Christmas for its diverse, wide-ranging social ministries. Volunteers are so integral that instead of job listings you find volunteer listings on the organization’s website. Among the needs at the Aurora facility posted in October were a beautification specialist (a clean-up worker) and a food pantry helper. A computer trainer and music instructor were wanted in St. Charles, and Oak Brook Terrace was looking for a child care worker, a youth leader and even a sound technician.
Motivated by its Christian beliefs, the Salvation Army runs more than 50 different types of social service programs including food pantries and homeless shelters. Less well-known, the organization is the largest provider of music education in Chicago and the largest supporter of Head Start in the city.
“Whatever your interest is, we probably need help,” says Shanna Schwarze, communications director. “Volunteers are vital to everything we do. We do so much, and we rely on our volunteers.”
The Salvation Army is particularly active in disaster relief. When catastrophic floods hit northern Illinois earlier this year, Salvation Army volunteers hurried to the scene and provided food and clothing to victims. When hurricanes recently battered Texas and Florida, Salvation Army volunteers from the Chicago suburbs deployed to those states. The formula works like this: the Red Cross initially responds to victims in the rescue phase of a disaster while the Salvation Army services first responders. During the recovery phase, the Salvation Army transitions to helping victims.
Bell ringers are always needed during the holidays. “People know they have to deal with the weather. It can get cold out there,” says Schwarze. An easy online application form is available.
Year after year, month after month, the Salvation Army attracts enthusiastic volunteers. “We hear about how we are a divided nation,” says Schwarze. “It’s heartwarming how we come together to help others. It’s neighbors helping neighbors. It’s just the right thing to do.”
Gift of Gratitude: Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital
Helping is heartwarming. But needs are great. Hines, for example, has what may seem to be like a surfeit of volunteers — 800. But weigh that number against the 850,000 visits by veterans to the Hines facilities last fiscal year and it’s clearly not enough.
More than 60,000 veterans used services at Hines and its six local clinics. Every visit by a volunteer serves to lighten the workload of staff and most likely lightens the heart of an appreciative veteran. “A volunteer has the time to stop and chat over a cup of coffee. That’s not something a staff person can do,” says Melissa Winter, volunteer coordinator at Hines.
At Hines and elsewhere, volunteers often can identify with those they help in a way staff cannot. The people who volunteer at Hines “know the hospital inside and outside — better than the staff do. They can really relate
to the veterans,” says Winter.
Ultimately, it’s what inside the volunteer, what motivates them to show up and work, that enables them to reach out and make a connection to those in need. “Not everyone served their country,” says Vahlkamp of the “No Veteran Dies
Alone” program. “This is a way to serve your country.”
Or it’s a way to forge a human connection — a moment of kindness between two people in the dead of the night that is not known outside the walls of a hospital room but silently affirms the importance of selfless service. Egan has sat numerous times with a 95-year-old vet with dementia. “He’s just very sweet. He smiles at everything,” she says. “He’s lost in his own mind. But he responds to other people. He’s still there.”
Feeding the Hungry, Whether Across the Globe or Close to Home
For those who have never experienced chronic hunger, it can be hard to grasp the urgency of the need for food, both close to home and in other parts of the world. To convey the impact of helping to provide even the simplest of meals, volunteers at Feed My Starving Children in Aurora are shown a video on hunger in poor nations before they start packing meals.
“Sometimes kids from around here feel like they don’t have a lot. Then we show them the video,” says Site Manager Christine Varsbergs.
Volunteers are the heartbeat of Feed My Starving Children. The Aurora location has just four employees, yet the facility packed 37 million meals last year for children in 70 poor nations. Another 19 million meals were prepared at mobile sites.
The meals consist of four basic components: rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables and vitamin powder. Arranged in an assembly line, one set of volunteers can quickly pack tens of thousands of meals.
The facility runs as many as five sessions, lasting either two hours or 90 minutes, and as many as 180 volunteers can take part at one time.
“We are a well-oiled machine. Our volunteers say that all the time: ‘I come here, and you put me to work,’” says Varsbergs.
Hunger is not a pressing concern just in far-away poor nations but also in households in otherwise affluent neighborhoods in the western suburbs. The Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry in Naperville began in 1984 in a closet at St. Raphael Church in Naperville. It served eight families its first year. Now its 17,000-sq-ft facility serves 800 families a week throughout DuPage County.
The massive Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva serves the 13 northern counties of Illinois (Chicago is served by a separate entity). Though the facility has only 120 full-time employees, last year it made possible 65.5 million meals for more than 500,000 people. About 25,000 volunteers, who typically sort large containers of food into smaller, more manageable packages, tallied 136,000 hours of labor, equivalent to 65 full-time workers. Volunteers are the difference between food on a family’s table and no food on the table.
While food banks tend to be inundated with volunteers around the holidays, don’t let that stop you from coming out, say its staff. “We do see a huge influx [of volunteers] in November and December. Then we see a dip in January and February,” acknowledges Jennifer Nau, communications director for the Northern Illinois Food Bank. “But the more the merrier.”
Lending a Helping Hand
Marianjoy Rehabilitation Center
Contact Melissa Mullins, Volunteer Program Coordinator, at 630 909-7400 or apply online at www.marianjoy.org
Visit www.bridgecommunities.org for a range of mentoring, “adopt a family” and volunteer opportunities
Community Nurse Help Center
Contact Sue Paice, Volunteer Services Coordinator, at 708 579-2403 or visit www.communitynurse.org
Visit www.salvationarmy.usa to connect with local volunteer opportunities
Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital
Call 708 202-2523 or visit www.hines.va.gov to download an application packet
Northern Illinois Food Bank
Visit www.solvehungertoday.org for a range of general, skills-based and teen opportunities
Feed My Starving Children
Visit www.volunteer.fmsc.org to find times and locations to suit your schedule
For a wider selection of local opportunities, check out the Do GOOD DuPage volunteer service at www.givingdupage.org/dogoodEdit Module