Monday, July 8, 2013

Volunteering: The Importance of Sitting Still

Because I’m a writer, I spend a lot of time alone. Too much time alone probably. When we lived in North Carolina, I decided to volunteer at a retirement village to get myself out of the house and to show Maggie, who was twelve, a way to get involved in communities.

I was assigned to the assisted living wing of the facility. I drove down an azalea-lined road each Wednesday. I was another set of hands--pouring coffee or cutting craft paper or cleaning paintbrushes. Mostly I stayed in the back of the room.

When the residents ran out of stories to offer one morning during Reminiscence Time, the activity director said, “Miss Karen, (Remember this is the South.) do you remember anything from your childhood?” A wallflower by nature, I panicked as all eyes turned toward me. I said I remembered singing with my grandmother on the front porch. “Well, come up here and sing something for us,” she said.

I wanted to cry.

Not only am I shy, I can’t carry a tune. Nevertheless, I belted out “A Bicycle Built for Two.” A few ladies joined in. I tried “School Days.” More joined in. I sang every song I remembered from Girl Scouts and Bible school. I added the hand motions, and they followed along until everyone was involved in our spontaneous show. No one cared how I sounded. As they left, they shook my hand or patted my arm or hugged me.

One day I found a resident alone in her room, sitting in her wheelchair. I asked if she’d like to help me take a few books back to the library. She reached for them, eager for something to do. On our return, we stopped by a window to watch the ducks in the pond. She rarely spoke to people, but that day she chatted about ducks and all kinds of birds.  She knew a lot about them. Before long she told me about her mother’s garden. She described furniture her father had made. She offered a funny story about her sister. She took my hand and fell asleep for a while.

For weeks I’d walked past a lobby poster with a slogan about helping hands and caring hearts.  Finally on this day, I understood the depth of the message. The residents needed me to be beside them, not behind them.

Yes, practical chores were involved in volunteering there. People in assisted living needed plenty of help, and the staff was busy beyond belief. 

But what was the merit of sitting still and holding a hand on a spring day? 


Because I really held her heart.         


  1. This is lovely, Karen. And you've offered your heart to so many.

  2. Thanks so much for your kind comment. Maggie and I have wonderful memories of our time with those remarkable people.