Swapping Stories and Memories
“Volunteers are not paid – not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless”
When 79 year-old John Gibbons, a native of Ireland, retired from his position as a Code Enforcement Officer with the City of White Plains 14 years ago, he found himself with some extra time on his hands. Although an avid, daily walker with several weekly social commitments, the Croton-on-Hudson resident, who lives alone with his cat, Frosty, still had some hours to fill. John began to think about volunteering and in a phone conversation with his niece regarding all the free time retired life now afforded him, she affirmed that volunteering would be good for him – it would get him out of the house and also give John the opportunity to help someone else.
So he decided to offer his services at nearby Bethel Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Croton-on-Hudson. “I didn’t know what they needed or what I could do for them, but I thought I would see, so I went over to find out,” says John. “The (former) Director of Volunteers interviewed me that day and said I could start the following week. Well, that was 12 years ago and I’ve been volunteering there ever since!” said John.
“When I first started, I was asked to transport residents to and from their therapy sessions,” explained John. “A couple of weeks later, the Director said, ‘Come with me, John, I want you to meet some people.’ She introduced me to several residents and told them, ‘John is going to be your friendly visitor.’ I had never done that before and said as much, but the Director said she had every “faith in me” and here I am, doing the same thing all these years later!” he said.
Every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday John has individual visits with about six residents. From 9am to noon. they talk about everything and anything: current events, politics, family, life experiences and day to day doings.
Says John, “The people I visit typically don’t have a lot of frequent visitors. So they look forward to seeing me and I look forward to seeing them.”
John says that he takes his cue from each resident in terms of conversation. If he thinks they want to talk and be the storyteller, he will listen attentively and not interrupt. “I’ve always been patient, but I’ve learned even more patience now, from visiting with the residents, so I am quite content to listen while they talk to me,” says John. Conversely, if a resident is quiet and not as talkative, John will take the lead and chat away, regaling them with anecdotes to try and cheer them up, if that is the reason for their quietness, or just to evoke a response that will engage them. John knows the residents well enough now to bring up topics that will be of interest to them. “I definitely have the gift of gab and I use it!” says John.
Over the years, John has been a visitor and friend to many residents at Bethel and, in some cases, has also gotten to know family members as a result of his bond with their loved ones. For those who have since passed on, he remembers the impact their deaths had upon him and how difficult it was in the beginning. “I know it may sound strange, but when I first came here, I never thought about the residents passing away. It’s still difficult, of course, when it happens, but I have so many good memories of each person I knew and the conversations and laughs we’ve had,” says John.
He says that all the residents he has met have touched his soul in some way. “One of the residents I visit now is such a beautiful person. I do most of the talking, but she has really brought me down to earth. I may have thought I was smart before but she has really turned me into a proper thinker! When she smiles, she smiles with her eyes. She has a wonderful ability to share and laugh and has such a joyful way about her,” says John.
He recognizes that volunteering at Bethel has been a positive experience. “It makes me feel that I’m needed in some way, that I’m doing something worthwhile,” John says. “It truly gives me a sense of accomplishment, and that I’m actually doing more good than I am bad!” he laughs.