7 Dec 20220 Comments
A former school librarian who coaches Latino youth with college applications; a retired teacher who converses with non-native English speakers to practice their English language skills; a docent who infuses visitors with the enthusiasm she felt as a museum-goer in her childhood; and an animal lover who helps shelter dogs become more “adoptable.”
Volunteering takes many forms, each reflecting the individual’s passions and abilities. In the stories that follow, four volunteers describe the joys and rewards of devoting themselves to a cause that answers a deep need. Each has found purpose and satisfaction in work that can nourish the spirit, challenge the intellect, and warm the heart—knowing that someone’s life is better because of what they do.
When Ellen Joseph talks about her volunteer work, she uses words like resiliency, isolation, loneliness, and shyness. She is not talking about her colleagues or peers. She is talking about dogs.
Joseph volunteers at SPCA Westchester, the Briarcliff Manor animal rescue center. There’s no getting around the harsh reality of an animal shelter; the animals have been surrendered, abandoned, or rescued from abusive situations. SPCA is one of a small number of “no-kill” shelters, taking in all but the most hopeless cases, regardless of how long it takes to place them in a permanent home.
Joseph and other volunteers work to ensure the emotional well-being of their charges through a variety of programs aimed at helping the dogs become more adoptable: well acclimated to their surroundings, less reactive to other dogs, and more comfortable with strangers. “We want them to learn appropriate behaviors so they can find a permanent home,” she says.
This goes beyond simple leash training or keeping paws off the visitors. The SPCA encourages volunteers to engage the animals in activities that dispel boredom and stimulate healthy behavior. Typically, younger, smaller dogs are easier to place than larger, older ones. In other shelters, such dogs might be put down, but SPCA houses some animals for years. “Some of these dogs display such resiliency, working so hard to succeed and waiting a long time for their person to come along,” says Joseph. “I love hearing when one of them gets to go home.”
The SPCA grounds include play yards, kiddie pools, and outdoor runs for stimulation and exercise. In addition to daily walks and playtime, the shelter offers enrichment programs that, in Joseph’s words, “relieve the stress of living in a fairly stressful environment.” A resource room, staged like a living room, helps dogs adjust to indoor settings. Volunteers may organize “pack walks” to neighboring parklands or lead their charges through agility training or “nose work,” finding hidden treats by scent.
A hallmark of the shelter is a series of programs that invite the public to interact with the animals for mutual enrichment. Reading to Dogs, Journaling with Cats, and music sessions, when (human) students practice their scales to a canine audience, help foster the mutual exchange of affection and attention. Sometimes, these interactions lead to adoptions, but Joseph sees them as a way to instill empathy toward animals: something that people may lack.
“I love being with dogs. I feel a special connection with many of them,” says Joseph. She admits that not every dog or human can overcome their circumstances to make that connection. “That’s why the work I do at SPCA is so rewarding. All the volunteers work hard to make every day a better day for these wonderful animals.”
When Karen Baker retired from her job as a middle school librarian in Chappaqua, she missed having contact with young people during an important part of their lives. So when considering volunteer opportunities, she chose to work with LUCA (Latino U College Access), a White Plains nonprofit that supports low-income, first-generation Latino youth in gaining acceptance to college.
LUCA volunteers perform a range of services. Some guide students through their applications, while others help them apply for financial aid or assist in landing internships. Baker immediately recognized it was a good fit for her. “I’m an educator. I’m very organized. I have strong research skills and I’m comfortable with technology. You need all of that to help someone with the college application process,” she says.
As a LUCA College Coach, Baker is matched each year, in June, with college-bound Latino students—rising seniors who hope to gain admission to a suitable school by the following spring. She meets with each student weekly, these days on Zoom, charting their progress in completing innumerable tasks, from researching schools to writing their personal statements. Baker’s job involves directing these young scholars toward appropriate resources, answering questions, and—most of all—encouraging them through what can be a confusing and overwhelming process.
For Baker, 71, her biggest challenge is being “a white, middle-class woman who never faced the kind of struggles these students have to face,” she says. She is thankful for LUCA’s help in becoming more aware of, and sensitive to, different cultural perspectives. Her own viewpoint began to widen with her very first coaching student.
As an undocumented immigrant, the young woman was ineligible for federal aid. But she persevered through numerous disappointments and was eventually accepted to a private college on a four-year scholarship. “She sent me a video that showed her opening her decision email,” Baker said. “I was thrilled for her. I felt so lucky to have been part of her journey.”
Baker thoroughly enjoys the hours she devotes each week to her students, as well as the staff and leadership she encounters at LUCA. “It’s such a wonderful organization, extremely well organized, with great resources,” she says, adding that many of the staff and volunteers are themselves the first in their families to attend college. “I’m humbled by these very determined students and their families. They are so motivated and have so much to offer. Without the support of an organization like LUCA, they might not have this opportunity. I’m thankful to play a small part in their success.”
When Loretta Poole was a schoolgirl living in Queens, she and her brother frequently rode the bus into Manhattan to visit the Hayden Planetarium. “We would spend a few hours at the museum, go somewhere for lunch, and then catch the bus back to Queens—all on our own. We were nine and eleven. I wish it could be that way for kids today,” she says.
Poole volunteers as a docent at the Hudson River Museum (HRM) in Yonkers. “I was interested in working with children,” she says. “And as a black person, I want to represent for children of color.” She was drawn to HRM’s rich offerings: a planetarium, a historic home, and a host of programs in art and science.
Poole finished a career in instructional systems technology in 2014. A friend encouraged her to apply to HRM’s docent program—a lengthy application and training process that can take six to eight months or longer. “You can’t just walk in and do it,” says Poole.
Poole and other docents lead tours through the museum’s rotating permanent collections and a shifting array of special exhibitions for individuals, school groups, clubs and adult education providers. Her job is to provide a stimulating experience that incorporates art, history and science—while emphasizing enjoyment and learning.
“People who typically come in for a docent tour already know a lot about the topic,” she says. “If they ask a question I can’t answer, I can ask about it on Monday and get back to them with an answer.” She is referring to HRM’s training sessions, held on Mondays when the museum is closed to visitors. Poole enjoys the constant learning she can access through lectures, conversations with guest artists, behind-the-scenes tours with curators and museum educators, and organized visits to other museums and historic sites in the area.
One of Poole’s favorite activities is leading school children on “The Naturalist’s Journey,” a multi-media experience that draws connections between the environment of the Hudson River Valley, art, and the museum’s many exhibits. During these activities, Poole encourages the children to sketch or record their observations in a journal. “We talk about what the river does, what was in the water then and now, and what we can do to make it better. For 45 minutes, they become naturalists. Sometimes I get a little misty when I’m leading because I’m so moved by the wonder in their faces.”
Poole regrets that more children don’t have access to the kind of cultural experiences she and her brother once enjoyed. “The neighborhood is full of kids who could benefit” from HRM scholarships, but “We just don’t have enough. I wish more people knew about the museum and supported it.”
When it comes to volunteering, Eva Fischer is no slouch. Her volunteer work spans years, during which she has worked at a community hospital, a local library, and with organizations that distribute donated medical supplies and bags of food to people in need. But her primary activity these days is helping English language learners navigate the quirks and idioms of their new language.
Fischer, 83, works with Conversation Partners, a program at Westchester Community College that pairs native English-speaking volunteers with students enrolled in the ESL program. According to the college’s website, more than 5,000 WCC students are non-native English speakers. Although most have acquired enough fluency to function in class, many opt for sessions with a conversation partner to practice their English-speaking skills in a relaxed, informal atmosphere.
Fischer, a retired teacher who speaks four languages, calls it “a wonderful opportunity that goes both ways. The student gets to practice their vocabulary and learn new idioms, while I get to learn more about another country’s culture. And make a new friend in the process.”
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Donna Moriarty writes about education, wellness, and personal development. Her work has appeared in national magazines, newspapers, and blogs. She is currently at work on a memoir. She and her husband live in Ossining, where their dachshund terrorizes the neighborhood dogs.
She describes a typical first meeting with her conversation partner as a “getting-to-know-you” conversation. They’ll meet for an hour a week in the campus cafeteria or an empty classroom. “I’ll ask them questions about their family, their job, what they are studying and what brought them to America. The conversation usually flows from there,” she says.
Her partners may need help with pronunciation or idiomatic expressions like “talk to the hand” or “I’m a people person.” But most seem to enjoy the low-pressure, organic atmosphere—far less stressful than being called on in class. As they loosen up, they become more fluent, and sometimes the conversation turns personal.
Fischer once had a partner who began their session by saying she’d been accosted by a man at work. At first horrified, Fischer soon realized the young woman was excited about having resolved the problem by standing up for herself. “In some ways we are a sounding board for them. Hearing someone reveal an intimate aspect of their life sparks empathy for that person,” she says.
Fischer takes great satisfaction knowing she is helping her conversation partner become more fluent and confident in their new language, which often translates to a better job. “I’m struck by how much these international students have sacrificed to make a better life for themselves,” she says. It humbles her to think her small contribution can make their way a little easier. “There’s such a great need for this kind of assistance, and I’m happy to give of my time,” she says.