My Volunteering Experience

After having Luna I knew I wanted to begin volunteering. There are lots of reasons why volunteering topped my to-do list. One, is an obvious, to be a good example to Luna and to introduce her to a helpful and positive environment. I also always wanted to volunteer when I had a full-time job, but rarely had the time, or flexibility in my schedule. Mostly, though, I want to volunteer because I want to give back. I want to help people. I want to do what I can, even if it’s small, to make this world a little brighter.

When I was in the hospital with Luna, I was so depressed and scared, but so many people continued to show up. Friends, family and strangers did not give up on me. They showed up, they brought me food, they made me laugh, they messaged me, believed in me and eventually made me believe in myself again. When I was finally able to come home with Luna I knew I wanted to “show up” for others. I wanted to help someone feel a little stronger, happier and braver. I spent hours trying to find the right volunteering fit for me. There’s actually a website (volunteermatch.org) that uses your likes and skills to match you up with a volunteering job in your location. In fact, I found something that seems to be a good fit, but it’s been a VERY long process. Every single volunteering gig seems to require a background check, a medical release, a personal record, a fingerprint, a signature in blood and your firstborn child. I’ve been patiently waiting for all my appointments, paperwork and documentation to go through and get filed so I can get started, but geez it’s a bit ridiculous.

Then, right when I was feeling disheartened, I was asked by a friend of a friend to visit a little girl in the children’s hospital. No paperwork required, just me. The little girl they spoke of, spends a lot of time alone in the hospital and the thought maybe I’d be interested in spending time with her. I was absolutely interested and immediately began making plans. I broke out my box of teacher Christmas activities, grabbed my favorite children’s books, packed some art supplies and headed to the hospital full of nerves and excitement. I was finally going to make a difference! BUT, it require me being in a hospital…my biggest fear.

The Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville is basically Disneyland. It’s gorgeous. It’s so full of colors, animated animals, activities, treats, toys and events. I was beyond impressed, but quickly depressed. It’s so wonderful that these children and families have a safe and beautiful place to take their children, but it’s also hard to know that it’s there because there are so many kids who need it. As I roamed the halls, passed the food court and watched some local performers single Christmas carols my heart felt like it was breaking with each step I took. Before I even made it to the little girl’s room I began questioning whether or not I was capable of taking on this particular volunteering opportunity. Maybe, this isn’t the right fit for me.

My first day began with the children’s musician who goes from room to room singing and playing instruments with the kids. Before she left the room, she had me, the Dad, a friend, a volunteer, a nurse and Luna playing instruments and singing Feliz Navidad. It was a beautiful moment. Thirty minutes later it was just me and my new friend (Oh, and Luna!). The sweet little girl is painfully shy. I was told she wouldn’t talk, but would communicate with me by pointing and nodding. I decided to just talk and talk in hopes of breaking the ice. I danced around, showed her how to make ornaments, read How the Grinch Stole Christmas (which she had never heard), wrote a letter to Santa and asked her every question I could think of that would require more than a nod. Ten minutes in I got her to whisper, and by the end of our time together I couldn’t get her to stop talking! We had a blast! I was a big ball of anxiety half of the time, but when she hugged me as I packed my stuff to leave, I knew it was worth it.

Luna playing along with the music.
Luna playing along with the music.

She called me a couple of days later to invite me back, and I’ll be back a third time on Thursday. She hugs me, laughs at me and seems to enjoy just talking to me, but I think she likes Luna most of all! I don’t think Luna has ever had someone play with her and love on her as much as this sweet girl. I get hugs when I show up and when I leave, but Luna gets hugs and kisses. I got to know one of the nurses who was giving a breathing treatment during my last visit. She found out that I used to teach and she went on and on about how much respect she has for teachers and how she could never do such a hard job. I think my jaw was on the floor. “You can’t be serious?? Yes, teaching is hard, but ummmm, you’re a nurse. I have no idea how you do your job everyday.” Nurses are very very special people and are probably some for of superhero.

I have loved the little bit of time I’ve gotten to spend with my new young friend, and look forward to more, but it doesn’t make that walk through the hospital any easier. I cry the second I get in my car, thank God for my healthy baby. I think “I just can’t…I just can’t understand any of this. How is life so hard and so unfair for these kids?” I am in such awe of every family I pass. I have so much respect for everyone working and volunteering at the hospital each and every day. While I think “I just can’t”, they just have to. They have no choice. I do though, I can choose to show up, and while it may be hard, it’s not near as hard as if that little girl was sitting in that hospital room with no visitors.  Seeing that little girl’s smile and her whole face light up when I walk in the room is worth any bit of uncomfortableness I may feel. Yeah, visiting a children’s hospital isn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows, but you may be their only sunshine.

If you’re fortunate enough to have some time to volunteer this year, please consider it. I know it’s not easy to sign up with an organization. It takes time and often a big commitment, but there are many simple ways to help out. Visit an elderly neighbor, bring food to a local shelter, walk your sick neighbor’s dog, babysit someone’s kids who needs a break, wash your Grandparent’s car or call someone you know is lonely this Holiday season. Sometimes, we think we aren’t strong enough to help or make a difference, but we are. We are enough. So show up as you are and I promise you won’t regret it.

Cheers!

Occupying Sandy (My Volunteering Story)

*I don’t have many pictures to post today, but I’m in the process of editing a video of our experience…hope it works!*

Over the weekend a new friend of mind told me about a volunteering group in the city that not only needs lots of volunteers, but also doesn’t turn anyone away. This group is called Occupy Sandy; it’s a coalition that serves the people in need. I signed up and within an hour received an email with instructions on where to go to help the next morning.

This morning, Zoey, Husband and I took a few trains to Brooklyn to meet a friend and head to St Jacobi Church in Sunset Park.

awww poor sleepy Zoey

This church serves as the hub for all the volunteers and the many donated supplies. The beginning of our day was hectic and pretty unorganized. There are literally thousands of people showing up to volunteer and donate. The problem is that different volunteers are showing up each day. It seems that the people leading the masses have to regroup every morning and do their best to give people duties. (hehe, sorry, we just saw “Wreck-It Ralph”)

We did our best to take action. Someone was handing out papers that listed an address and a list of supplies, so we took the list and began filling up boxes. Once the boxes were full we headed out to the sidewalk to find a car. Dozens of drivers were parked down the street ready to take supplies and volunteers to any destination they were given.

getting all the donations organized

Zoey and I hopped in a car with three other girls, and the five of us headed to Coney Island. I had no clue what to expect. Like the rest of the country, I have been overwhelmed with pictures and videos consuming the Internet and the local news, but I still feel so detached. I may live in NYC, but my neighborhood is sooo unaffected that I feel a country away from the devastation.

packing up the car with supplies

As soon as we arrived we became overwhelmed by the destruction; I’ve been through a few hurricanes myself (I grew up on the Gulf Coast), but this was very different. The streets were covered in sand; mounds of sand five feet high were piled on the corners of each street. Cars were turned over, smashed into poles, and destroyed by the storm. The power was still out, the people were freezing, and many homes had been lost.

sand on the streets

Once again, we arrived to find total chaos. Our destination had not been organized yet, and there was only one small, but amazing, family there waiting to help. After lots of organizing, finagling, and some charge-taking by a very loud, strong-willed lady, we finally got the supplies set up and ready.

Instantly, a line of people formed who were ready to pick up what they needed. We were told by the people in charge to force people to wait in the line, give them a bag full of food, water, and supplies, and send them on their way; this was so much harder than it sounds.

While filling bags with proteins, veggies, fruits and grains, we were constantly interrupted by someone asking for “just one can of tuna”, “gloves for my little girl”, “deodorant and toothpaste please.” How could I tell these people no!?

Well, I couldn’t. I kept thinking, “If they’re here, they’re asking, and they need it, it’s my job to give it to them!” So, I broke all the rules and snuck Snickers, hairspray, candles, and hot hands to anyone who asked…and some who didn’t.

Our whole group was amazing. I spent the day working with volunteers who live in the community. They themselves do not have power or running water, but are able bodies that want to do anything they can for their community. They were really inspiring people.

When supplies and crowds began to dwindle, we were informed of a large building across the street that housed senior citizens. The seniors have been without power for over a week and many, who are sick and disabled, have no way to leave their apartments to get supplies.

Our group trekked over, installed flashlight apps on our phones, and began marching up to the 14th floor to knock on doors. On the way up, a woman stopped us and begged us to check in room “12G”. She said she knew the people that lived there, who are elderly and sick, and she couldn’t get them to answer the door. She was afraid something tragic had happened and wanted us to check. US! THAT INCLUDES ME!

By the time we reached 12G I thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest.  THANK GOD the woman across the hall informed us that 12G was not there after she heard us knocking and calling at the door.

Going up and down these dark stairwells and through the pitch-black hallways was one of the scariest adventures of my life. It was right out of a horror movie…Blair Witch meets Shutter Island. Not only was it frightening for us, but also it was really scary for the seniors. They have been shut up in their apartments, many scared and hungry, and have no idea who might be banging on their door.

In the end, everything worked out: we got a list of needs from everyone still in the building, drove back to the hub to pick up supplies, and came back to distribute them to each apartment. It was not easy to carry gallons of water and bags of canned goods up all those steps, so I thought of my own Grandmother the whole time.

Most of these senior citizens we met were from Russia and spoke very little English. I thought if the situation were reversed, and my Grandmother was stuck on the 10th floor of an apartment in Russia, I sure hope someone would carry up everything she needs. The one thing that broke my heart was that we had numerous requests for milk (the one thing my Grandmother would want most), and none to give to them.

They were, though, all very, very grateful for the supplies we were able to bring.

It felt great to get out and help others today. Husband and his friend stayed at the Hub all day organizing, filling orders, and carrying deliveries to and from cars. We all felt like we made a positive impact today, but it certainly didn’t feel like enough. The scariest part to me was that we were only in Coney Island. There are a million more areas that also need help, many more than where we were. Where’s my Super Woman cape when I need it?!?!

Now, I’m home, feeling so grateful for everything. I have hot, clean water, electricity, food, blankets, windows, a job, a family….I’m teary eyed just thinking about how fortunate I am.

Hopefully, I’ll have a video up for you tomorrow.

Be thankful and be generous. There are so many people on the East Coast who need your help!

Xoxo and Cheers!