Many Joyous Returns
Volunteers in the western suburbs attest that giving back to others — at all times of the year — can yield immeasurable rewards.
Photo courtesy of World Relief DuPage
Garland, tinsel and a small tree soon will deck the halls of this small office in Westmont. There still will be ample room on tabletops for baskets crammed with bright packages of Famous Amos cookies, Cheez-Its and Sun Chips, and a refrigerator stocked to the brim with gleaming cans of orange juice and Coke. On this fall day, one by one, volunteers trudge in from the wet and cold, bare their arms, then snack on the salty treats, replenish their fluids and walk out from the Heartland Blood Center knowing they’ve made a difference.
This kind of volunteering is literally a flesh-and-blood proposition. “You give yourself. It’s personal,” says longtime blood donor Chuck Radosta, 82, of Lyons. He reads a mystery before coming to relax himself.
The mathematics of blood donation is simple and astounding: a single donation can save three lives. Dennis Soszynski, 72, a matter-of-fact former Marine who served in Vietnam and once clambered up telephone poles for the phone company before settling into office work, has donated 13 gallons in 103 visits. “That’s three times 103 lives saved,” says Soszynski of Downers Grove, who also delivers books to the homebound for his hometown library and clears invasive species from the forest preserves. “I just enjoy helping others.”
The holidays are notoriously frenzied. Still, needs persist. “People are busy. They want to spend time with family. They need to get the house ready, make dessert, do the Christmas shopping. It’s about loved ones, not necessarily the community,” says Matt Queen, a spokesperson for Heartland. “Yet the need for blood is always there.”
Whether the calendar says December or July, the homeless lack shelter, the hungry require meals, those in mental distress ache for relief and comfort. Fortunately, there is an underground economy of volunteers, an army of elves, doing service year-round. The holidays cast them in sharp relief.
During the holidays we seem to reflexively try to suppress any Scrooge-like tendencies and enact our own personal Christmas Carol, putting aside, if only temporarily, personal concerns and waking up to the needs of others. But many follow their own passions day after day, year after year, devoting themselves to patching aching holes in the social net, creatively serving the greater good, a small wave of good rippling outward. They typically enrich their own lives in the process.
Welcoming the Stranger
For three and a half years Keith and Lisa One of Naperville have taught English to a young couple from Myanmar. Once a week they drive to the couple’s apartment in Carol Stream. Their English has improved. Perhaps even better, the two families have forged a strong friendship.
“They’re happy to see us. We’re happy to see them,” says Lisa.
The immigrant couple comes to Christmas and Thanksgiving parties at the home of the Ones, and the Naperville couple attends birthday parties of the Myanmar family, who now have two children. In fact, a photo of the Ones decorates the wall of the Myanmar family’s home, and the Ones are regarded as grandparents of the young children.
The Ones are among the nearly 800 annual volunteers for World Relief DuPage/Aurora, which helps refugees and immigrants successfully integrate into society. Besides teaching English, volunteers serve as “friendship partners” and “family adjustment tutors” to help families ease the shock of an unfamiliar culture and navigate the unknown waters of a brand new life.
The volunteers are absolutely essential to assimilation. “Our mission is to engage local churches and local communities,” says Holly Tseng, volunteer engagement manager at World Relief. “People will not truly integrate unless the receiving community is involved. We’re working both sides.”
Volunteers flock to World Relief for reasons as old as organized religion and as new as the current political climate. “The Bible teaching is to welcome the stranger,” says Tseng. “People also see what is happening in our nation. They see the hostility to strangers.”
Befriending immigrants often helps volunteers put their own lives in perspective. “They see these immigrants with challenges still cracking jokes, still loving their families,” says Tseng. “It’s really a mutual situation. Volunteers are learning about other cultures and lives.”
The Ones became volunteers for World Relief through their church, Naperville Presbyterian, after Keith, 65, retired from IBM. They’ve helped the Myanmar couple figure out practical matters Americans already know. Once, for example, the couple was thoroughly confused in calling an office and getting connected to a phone tree. “They’re learning American life,” says Keith.
A Bed and More
The homeless shelter at the church complex in Lyons opens its doors at 7 p.m., and Bob Rackow of Western Springs, site coordinator, warmly greets a middle-aged client by name. “I’ve lost this eye,” he tells Rackow while pointing to the right side of his head. “Can’t see anymore. It’s the retina.” Rackow steadies his gaze at him. “I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll talk to you later.”
For nearly two decades Rackow, 68, amiable and low-key, has been a site coordinator for BEDS PLUS. Once a week, from October until May, even though Rackow still works full-time as an accountant in Burr Ridge, he logs several evening hours at BEDS, coordinating the other volunteers and attending to the needs of clients, making sure they receive dinner, a restful night’s sleep, and though he’s gone by then, a hearty breakfast.
It takes a light touch to supervise a homeless shelter. A woman with three small children tells Rackow another client is unhappy her kids are making noise. “What’s your name?” Rackow first responds as he gently takes her hand in his. “I will keep an eye on that,” he reassures her. ‘But if there is a problem tell me about it first.”
Operating each night, BEDS rotates among seven churches including St. Hugh in Lyons. (The clients eat and sleep in the spacious auditorium of its closed parish school.) Last year BEDS served more than 11,000 meals to more than 200 clients. The line between stability and homelessness can be paper thin, as Rackow has learned over the years. “It doesn’t take much — divorce, loss of job, you get in trouble with the law,” says Rackow, a trim man who wears wire-rim glasses and sports a thin white mustache.
It takes a village to take care of the homeless. Volunteers drop off heaps of food for the two dozen clients. Tonight it’s sloppy joes, Italian sausage and salad with a variety of desserts. Special needs students at Lyons Township High School washed and transported the beddings. The first of the four shifts this night has five volunteers including Mary Ann Babiar of Lemont and Harry Patten of Oak Brook in the kitchen. Babiar started volunteering for BEDS more than 20 years ago when she lived in La Grange and BEDS was at a church near her home. “I wanted to help people in my community rather than someone who was faceless. I wanted that connection,” she says. Tonight she is affected by the young mother. “It breaks your heart when you see families, when you see kids trying to do their homework.”
The volunteers, comrades in arms, get to know one another — a perk. “They recognize you. You recognize them. It’s nice,” says Patten.
The clients are a mixed group: different ages and races. A couple of the younger, more robust ones had hurried in as soon as the doors opened to properly set up the heavy tables and chairs. Most of the clients eat at one table and share small talk. The man with the eye problem has chosen to sit by himself tonight. BEDS offers job counseling, but for some clients the struggle can be persistent. “He’s a nice fellow. He just can’t seem to hold a job,” says Rackow.
Rackow has brought several pairs of steel-toed shoes from his workplace (employees at his workplace are given them) in case anyone needs them. “Good price — free!” Rackow announces.
Asked why he volunteers here, Rackow pauses before replying, “That’s a good question.” His forté is not self-reflection but a patient diligence. Later, after he’s had time to think, he explains his motivation to serve. “I think it’s engrained in you. It probably goes back to when you were a kid. My mom was just so patient. She was great — I know everyone says that about their mom. But she really took care of me and my friends. She was so giving, never critical.”
Rackow has four grown children, and one day he plans to take his young grandkids to the shelter. “They know about BEDS. They’ll be over on a Wednesday, and they’ll say, ‘Where is grandpa going?’ Maybe it’s selfish, but I’m glad they know I do this. I can be a role model for them.”
The lights go out at 9 p.m.. Until then, Rackow checks on his crew to see what they may need and mingles with the clients, knowing to tread lightly and to carry a little stick, if one at all. “Can you imagine what their day is like?” he asks. “They don’t need someone to hassle them.”
Three years ago Nancy Leguizamon, 61, of Glendale Heights grappled with her son’s mental health crisis. They found solace at National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) DuPage in Wheaton. Since then she’s been a devoted volunteer, talking to families in crisis.
“People call us out of frustration and desperation,” she says. “We can’t change their situation. The challenge will still be there. But we can provide perspective, the opportunity to move forward, to change how they see their situation.”
NAMI DuPage provides peer counseling, family counseling, education and advocacy. It began in 1985 with no paid staff and continues to rely heavily on volunteers (though it uses paid, professional staff as well). Last year more than 8,000 volunteer hours were logged. “Volunteers are really important to us. We get no state or federal funds,” says Krista Valleskey, executive assistant.
Volunteers answer phones, mentor clients, do general office work, operate the café and print shop, help with fundraisers and share their personal stories as speakers at schools and other venues. They help destigmatize mental illness and offer heartfelt and experience-laden support to families enduring the woes of mental illness. “This is something they (volunteers) really care about and know about,” says Valleskey.
Leguizamon eagerly anticipates her stints at NAMI. “I like to be surrounded by people in healthy recovery. It gives me hope that recovery is possible,” she says. “This organization makes a difference. When I’m in this space I feel encouraged by the kindness, generosity and love.”
She traces her desire to reach out to others back to her third-grade classroom at a public school in Lyons. There was a new student, Sonja. “She does not speak English,” her teacher told the class. That struck a nerve with Leguizamon. “I just thought, she really needs a friend. I’ll be that friend.”
In 1995, Leguizamon took a three-week, church-sponsored mission trip to Africa. “I wanted to save the world,” she recalls with a smile. Over time, she learned the world was just outside her door. “I’m saving the world one person at a time. Making the world a better place — you don’t do it in one fell swoop. It happens a little bit at a time. It can happen with a little bit of encouragement and a smile.”
Preserving the Forest
After we’re gone, can we claim we left the world, at least a small swath of it, better? Modesty prevents George Birmingham, 68, of Oak Park, from tooting his own horn. It takes a group of dedicated volunteers to rejuvenate a forest. But Birmingham, who until he retired instructed inmates at Joliet State Prison working toward their GED, has led a 25-year effort to beautify a section of the Theodore Stone Forest Preserve in Hodgkins.
Near a car dealership and a shopping center, the grove should have been a welcome oasis of greenery. Instead, it was an ecological eyesore, a dark and even sinister outpost avoided by anyone with common sense. “It was the kind of place where people do things not for a good purpose. Drugs and things not safe,” says Birmingham.
Invasive species had transformed the patch of land into “a tangled maze,” says Birmingham. “The place was totally inaccessible.”
The small trees and other growth had crowded out native species, sucking up the sun and depriving the soil of nutrients for more varied, attractive and visitor-friendly native vegetation. Once a week and an occasional Saturday, Birmingham has been part of a small group that cuts down the tangled mess, burns it on the spot and spreads seeds. The Cook County Forest Preserve sanctions the enterprise and gladly provides the tools. School groups sometimes join in.
The volunteers, saving the forest by killing unwelcome trees, are a diverse crowd: a scientist from Argonne, blue-collar workers, mothers with children at home. Afterward, they often share a potluck lunch. The group will be active throughout the holidays, despite the seasonal bustle and the cold temperatures and leaden skies. “In the summer you get the mosquitoes,” says Birmingham. “It’s better in the cold when you can have a fire.”
Pam Jacobs of Elk Grove Village was intrigued last year when she saw a posting for a “volunteer toymaker.” That’s what she became last holiday season. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County gave her some branches of invasive species removed from the woods, an instructional diagram and a cutting tool, and Jacobs, a CPA who is a woodworker hobbyist, spent two dozen or so hours making homemade versions of “Tinker Toys or Lincoln Logs,” as she dubbed her creations.
The 40 or so pieces of interlocking wood were played with by children visiting the Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington. “With all the political turmoil we have, it was good to give something back,” says Jacobs, who apparently has found her niche, as she is currently creating wooden ornaments for a children’s charity in Bloomington.
Louis Dooley, 44, of West Chicago, leads Bible study three times weekly at Cook County Jail, visits inmates at DuPage County Jail, and helps lead prison ministry workshops at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington. He even orchestrates a large, one-day fundraiser at a restaurant in Schaumburg for inmates about to be released from prison. They’ll receive a gift box of toiletries, hats and gloves, and an assortment of other bare necessities they otherwise likely would not have. “It lets them know that someone cares about them,” says Dooley.
That kind of caring was what he needed when he was locked up for nearly 16 years. Dooley, who grew up in East St. Louis, served time for attempted murder and armed robbery. He gave his life to Christ while in jail and for nearly seven years has shared his life story with inmates in the hope they, too, will turn their lives around.
His jailhouse conversion bordered on the miraculous. A fellow inmate had been overly friendly, Dooley thought, and up to no good. Dooley decided to kill him. Turns out the inmate only wanted to teach him about Christ. Dooley recounts his dramatic story in his book Prison Saved My Life: I Recommend It for Everyone.
The inmates he visits and befriends on the other side of the glass don’t know him. “I tell them I know who God is and how he changes lives. I know about the power of God,” he says. “I know what it’s like to be on the other side. I know how a person invested in another can help that person change.”
Inmates are particularly bereft of help, he says. “They’ve often burned bridges with their families. Prison is a very lonely place,” says Dooley. “I just try to be a friend. Maybe I can help them figure out their life. To know I can impact or influence a person is very humbling, very rewarding.”
Crazy for Kittens
A spare room at the Lenz home in Downers Grove is the designated guest room for pets. Shannon Lenz and her two teen-age children, Evan and Avery, are volunteers at the West Suburban Humane Society in their town. For them, that often entails serving as foster parents for purring kittens.
When it comes to animals, the more the merrier for the Lenz family, which has two dogs, a cat, two geckos and even a snake. “My kids love animals,” says Lenz. “It’s like a zoo here.” Of course, those little apples didn’t fall far from the tree. “My kids refer to me as the ‘crazy-cat lady.’ I love cats.”
Lenz started volunteering with her children at the Humane Society five years ago. She’s a regular there, cleaning cages, sorting donations, training other volunteers. Like many volunteers, she quickly discovered that in giving she received.
“For me, it (volunteering) is a lifeline. My kids are in school. My husband works,” Lenz says. “During Christmas, if I’m stressed out, I can pet cats. I can be with people who love to talk about animals.
“I’m not ashamed of this: I struggle with anxiety and depression. Being with cats really helps. No one forces me to do this. I get to play with cats. It’s so nice.”
Her story encapsulates the lure of volunteering. It’s not a duty or a sacrifice or an activity that is particularly heroic. It’s a rewarding opportunity.
“You should find something that interests you,” says Lenz. “Don’t feel you need to volunteer, that it’s something you should do to make you a better person.”
Giving Life Itself
Christmas celebrates a commonplace event, the birth of a baby. Volunteering often is a simple, routine act. “We think being heroic is an impossible endeavor. You have to write a big check. Or make a grand gesture. But it takes one hour to give blood. And the gift of blood is the gift of life,” says Queen of Heartland.
In Westmont, the donors continue to file into the blood clinic. Among them are a trio — Carol and David Ducommun of Woodridge and the married couple’s friend, Phyllis Henderson. They all donate blood and then enjoy a nice lunch at a neighborhood spot. A needle poke is a miniscule price to pay for a priceless gift for others.
“What does it take? We’re out in less than an hour,” says Carol. “It’s a breeze.”Edit Module