UNPAID AND VERY REWARDING
Upon retiring and after many years of the daily grind, it was crystal clear to me that while I didn’t want to report to a boss or mind a clock, I wanted to fill my days with purpose. I needed a reason to get up each day and meaningful work to fill my hours. I decided I wanted to do volunteer work and set off on the mission of finding my “next” place in the world. Since my job was my life before retirement, I had no idea what appealed to me but the criteria was that I must make a difference. Simply, no? Ha! Little did I realize seeking volunteer work to fill an important void was much like job searching! I raced through an abundance of volunteer opportunities and on the first day realized it was not a good fit. In other words, I muddled through the hours of that first shift, only to turn in my apron at the end with a hearty “good luck, I’m sorry…” mumble mumble … never to return.
While I had passion and energy, I felt as if I had no specific passion for anything offered to me. My first position, I was placed as a volunteer in the psych ward in a hospital storing supplies in each patient’s room. Sounds pretty mindless, right? Mindless, hmm, perhaps that is the wrong word. But let me tell you, it was very triggering to see people captive, frustrated, and desperate. It was so sterile and cold, that my heart broke daily for these souls but I knew that stocking supplies in their rooms was not the difference I wanted to make. So, my next attempt was at a library storing books. This should be a refuge of knowledge and warmth, right? Well… if you happen to be a social human in any way, forget it. The quiet drove me completely crazy and I realized stocking and storing were just not in my wheelhouse.
Next up, I showed up for Volunteering with seventeen 3-year olds. That should be social, lively, and innocent enough! Lawd, baby Jesus, this child-free, red-lipsticked woman was brought to tears! I couldn’t handle that many little people tugging at me constantly. Of course I wanted to be needed but – this time of bodily consumption was out of my comfort zone for sure. Onward I went to the next volunteer position, running a gift shop in a hospital setting. This position gave me a little hope – I was starting to feel like myself, selling and schmoozing. I could congratulate the new baby crowd and console the heart surgery warriors. However, it still was not perfect because I quickly tired when 2 bud vases, a dozen “get well” cards, and a balloon a week were my sales. So, again I must go running out the exit door.
However, I did not give up. I think that is the moral of this story. Following all these misfits and pitfalls, I found the perfect place to fulfill my emotional and spiritual needs while also providing a critical support service to those in need. I turned a crisis in life into a blessing and after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years ago, a tight knit and loving bond was created with other cancer survivors. We all fought the same war to stay alive none of us knew if the following day would arrive.
Clearly, the chemo room at the Clearview Cancer Center where I had spent many months in dire pain believing my life was over would be my niche! I loved that space, because it was my revival room. While some may see it as I saw the psych ward, triggering and scary, it was a second home to me. Big as a football field, people sitting in huge easy chairs tethered to bags of “poison,” hoping to survive. That had been me just a few years prior and I was so grateful to the nurses and volunteers who watched me like a hawk during my tenure. They understandingly closed the curtains around my easy chair so I would not be embarrassed while I cried out of pity for myself. Six-hour drips can be so draining on the body and families of patients saw my gray skin tone and hollow eyes while gently offering me fresh strawberries for comfort. This was my world and I fell in love with the need to give back in that space.
You know you are in the right spot when you don’t even realize you are unpaid. The very first day I felt like a valuable asset and there was a love fest among all employees and patients. So many hugs in just one day! So many knowing smiles. Empathy radiated around the room, even stronger than the smell of antiseptics. Everyone in the room shared a bond that you would only experience as a cancer patient, thus you had to have been one to volunteer. It all made perfect sense. I’m not just staying busy; my confidence grows with each patient contact. This is only one reason why I drive 45 minutes each way to The Clearview Cancer Center and look so forward to it. My days aren’t glamorous and I work hard, with a big checklist of tasks to complete. There are a lot of patients and a lot of emotions. But whether my fellow fighters are feeling strong and grateful, or hopeless and desperate, I infuse each interaction with strength and love. I give warm blankets to patients, remembering how cold I used to be when that toxic recipe of fluids raced through my veins. Like a doting grandmother with fresh cookies, I walk my snack cart to each patient, chat a bit and try to make them excited by offering them Moon pies, pretzels, crackers and a bounty of candy. When cancer arrives, one must eat and junk foods are perfectly fine. The nurses allow whatever it takes for nourishment. I try to go the extra mile and mix their coffee just right and pour drinks for them because I know the definition of “weakness” while tethered. I know well the nausea battle and sometimes only Cheetos can be choked down. No judgment, no preaching “kale! superfoods! plant based!” here. It’s whatever you want, honey. Snack to your heart’s content.
When one of my new friends asks me when will her hair will return, I try to turn it into fun conversation about wigs and my amazing turban collection (photos on demand!), which usually develops into a spiritual conversation realizing appearance is so secondary, to a life full of love and connection.
My relationships are invaluable and my volunteerism helps me transcend ordinary, regular life. My hope is that as I wheel my little cart around and make that connection that only survivor eyes can make, I’m reaching out and sending so many tokens of appreciation doing what I love most. So in the end, it really doesn’t matter what type of volunteer work you do, just make sure it fills your heart with love and kindness so those feelings can flow from your full cup into someone’s who needs it in theirs.
Feature image from www.pexels.com, courtesy of Erkan Utu.