Courthouse facade web

The Gift Wrapped in a Styrofoam Box, an article by Tina Payne, United Way (appeared in the Newton Kansan in April, 2013)

A wise professor once told me, “If you are looking for an example of something that went well, tell someone else’s story.  If you are looking for an example of something which needed improvement, use your own.”   Sometimes I wish I didn’t have so many stories of my own lackluster performance to share.

As Mother’s Day approaches, I am reflecting on how quickly the years with my kids are flying by.  In the midst of diapers and formula, days seem like an eternity.  But, when my oldest needed just a little help with algebra homework last night, I realized how much she has learned already.  I have only a few formidable years to make a positive impact on my kids.   

When my brother and I were growing up in Valley Center, our mom was enrolled as a full-time student at Wichita State University.  She was a non-traditional student, having spent most of her twenties as a stay-at-home mother.  She worked part-time cleaning houses and at the local hardware store.  When I was about seven, my grandmother convinced her to go to college.  She majored in Gerontology.  Our lives were forever changed for the better.

You have to know my mother to understand this fully, but the woman has never met a challenge.  There are always more people to help, more barriers to knock down, and more positive changes to make for the community.  She instilled in us a spirit of giving back to the through volunteerism.  

As you can imagine from her major, most of our activities were geared towards older adults. We delivered Meals on Wheels during summer vacation.  On Thanksgiving Day, she prepared double the normal feast and then packaged at least half into containers for us to deliver.  Only after everyone on the route was fed, could we return home to enjoy our own.  We didn’t mind that at all.

After meeting with the Newton High School students last month, and learning of the volunteer hours they have logged, I decided to take a hard look at my own home.  Have I done enough to afford my children the same opportunities our mother gave to us?  The answer is, of course, “Not even close.”  Hence the advice from my professor I shared earlier.

April 21-27 is National Volunteer Appreciation Week.  Established in 1974 by President Nixon, each year we use this week to celebrate the millions of people who make this country and world a better place.    Activities range from proclamations by elected officials to local events, such as the Harvey County RSVP Volunteer Appreciation banquet on April 23.   

If you haven’t met her already, you need to make a point to visit with Mary Spires, Director of RSVP.   Building on the firm foundation formed by the directors who came before her, Mary has successfully expanded the program to include volunteers ages 14 and over.  She has worked hard in her first year, and has big goals for the future.

Mary reported that she is expecting approximately 200 people to attend the appreciation event.  Think about that number for a moment.   Think about the percentage of residents represented by that number.  I would venture you or I know someone in that audience.

According to the RSVP website, in 2011 Harvey County volunteers logged more than 76,000 hours valued at $1,130,390.96 in over 400 service opportunities.  Volunteers extend the reach of non-profit organizations.  Non-profits have always been forced to find creative ways to stretch tight budgets.  This is especially true in the current economy as funding streams such as grants and donations are drying up.  In many instances, services are only possible through volunteers.

But, it’s about more than the dollar figure.  Volunteerism creates community.  There’s a mutual benefit society at play here.  We often think about the benefit to recipients, but there’s a benefit to the volunteer as well.  RSVP cites a study by the Corporation for National and Community Health, in which volunteers were found to have “greater longevity, higher functional ability, lower rates of depression and less incidence of heart disease.” 

So, hold me to this folks.  I have already started exploring volunteer opportunities for my teen.  We are exploring mentoring, similar to Big Brothers Big Sisters.   Regardless of the choice, I want her to have similar fond memories.  

I think back to the people on our Meals on Wheels route, especially the woman who always greeted us at the door with full pancake makeup, perfect rouge circles, bright red lipstick and a sweet smile.  I may have been the only human contact she had that day.  But she was ready for me, a ten year old kid bounding up on her porch with a Styrofoam box.

I had no idea she was giving me a gift as well.