volunteer heroes (part 1)

Benjamin Franklin’s observation, “If you want something done, ask a busy person,” sure rings true when it comes to volunteering. The individuals who generously give their time and expertise to others aren’t just sitting around in their down time. They are caring for grandkids, socializing with friends, and attending to other commitments. Somehow, they also manage to squeeze in hours, days and weeks of volunteering — working heroically and selflessly to improve the lives of others. Here is how (and why!) they do what they do, making them our volunteer heroes.

Sharon McKenzie of Greenburgh knows what it’s like to be busy, and she loves the pace of a packed schedule. She worked for 30 years as a project manager for a company headquartered in Rye Brook before taking early retirement in 2015. Since then, she’s been busier than ever, spending about 40 hours a week volunteering around Westchester County. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The most rewarding part of volunteering for me is that it gives me purpose,” McKenzie enthuses. “It’s not just an act but a mission, a chance to advance world peace.”

Currently, she volunteers for several local organizations. At RSVP of Westchester, McKenzie works to keep the volunteers engaged. “The majority of volunteer stations were shut down due to Covid-19,” she recalls. “So we created a program called Movie Talk to keep the volunteers engaged.” Participants watch a documentary film and then participate in a 30-minute discussion.

McKenzie is also an active member of the World Peace Organization SGI-USA, a Buddhist community in the U.S. As a “member care advisor,” she conducts home visits and offers advice and guidance to members. “I focus on the members who are 65 and over,” she says. “My work is to empower them and to offer my support.”

In addition to RSVP of Westchester and SGI-USA, McKenzie recently completed Westchester County’s Livable Communities Caregivers Coaching program training. “It is designed to prepare volunteers for an enhanced ‘good neighbor’ role as caregiver coaches,” she says. “These coaches offer information and support to family caregivers.”

McKenzie, one of seven children, grew up in Tuckahoe and moved to White Plains after graduating from college. When she’s not volunteering, she enjoys listening to music, reading, cooking, and going for walks. She also loves to travel, though that has been more challenging since the pandemic started. Volunteering has also changed due to the pandemic. “Virtually 100% of my engagements and activities have been carried out on Zoom,” McKenzie says.

For anyone who is considering becoming a volunteer, McKenzie has this advice: “Find a way to serve that aligns with your true passions,” she says. “Service to your family and community is the only thing that lasts and has the power to enable you to discover your purpose in life. Volunteering will empower you.”

When McKenzie reflects on all the hours she has devoted to volunteering, she says she is gratified that she is making a difference in the lives of others. “We all are connected and what we do individually impacts the world,” she says. “It is important to take action and serve as a source of inspiration in your community.”

Alan Bey, 72, who lives with his wife in Scarsdale, retired four years ago after a 46-year career in health care administration. And while his three grown daughters and five grandchildren keep him from being bored, he decided soon after he retired that he wanted to volunteer.

“I like to be busy and to feel that my life has meaning beyond my wife and children and grandchildren,” Bey says. “I had a really, really busy job, and when I retired at 68, I still had a lot of energy left.”

The six to 10 hours each week Bey now spends volunteering pass quickly. He is on the advisory board of RSVP of Westchester and, under the auspices of the New York State Senior Medicare Patrol, he creates and posts one-hour Medicare classes for baby boomers and seniors.

Bey also volunteers at the New York Botanical Garden and Yonkers Partners in Education, where he mentors high school students. With SCORE Westchester, he provides one-on-one counseling to current and aspiring small business owners.

Volunteering his time and teaching others is rewarding and meaningful to him. Bey explains, “Volunteering keeps my mind active and my skills pouring back into the community. When I retired, I didn’t want to leave behind the lifestyle where I felt like I was bringing about change in people. So I use the areas in which I have expertise to help others.”

After Dot Berman retired from her job as a nurse at White Plains Hospital, she began looking for a little something to do as a volunteer. After all, she explains, it would be hard to spend 39 years as an operating room nurse while raising a family and then, suddenly, just do nothing!

With eight grandchildren, the 73-year-old Hartsdale resident still finds time to volunteer. She heard about RideConnect, a unit of Family Services of Westchester that offers free transportation to those 60 and older who need rides to doctors’ appointments, the hairdresser, cultural events, or shopping expeditions, and began volunteering with them in 2018.

She currently provides three to four rides each week – all around Westchester. One day she might be driving someone to a dialysis appointment and, on another occasion, to the gym or supermarket. “GPS makes it so easy these days,” she says. “I actually don’t mind getting lost, and I love giving a hand.”

The people she drives through RideConnect sit in the back seat of her car and wear a mask. But that doesn’t hamper the conversation, Berman jokes. “This is a perfect volunteer opportunity for me because I love meeting new people,” she says. “My husband says I would talk to a stone if it would talk back! I like that I can set my schedule and meet new people.”

Why does she volunteer? “It makes me feel good to help other people,” Berman says. “And RideConnect is good for me because I can do as little or as much as I want in any given week.”

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