Epilogue

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Wow, what a week!  To describe my Volunteer Odyssey as intense would be an understatement.  Between working my volunteer commitments each day, and meeting the deadlines of submitting my blog after each volunteer experience, I felt like I was working a full time job.   It was a full time job that was far more rewarding than I ever imagined.

There were two recurring themes I noticed during the week.  First – the word “blessing” was used a lot by those who were served by the non-profit organizations I was paired with.  Second – the non-profit partners I worked with all showed such passion about their job and seemed genuinely happy.   After what I’ve witnessed this past week, I believe the happiness and passion demonstrated by the non-profits and their employees is a result of knowing that what they were doing was providing a blessing to those who needed it.

That is exactly what I am looking for – a job that I feel passionate about.  I want to look forward to going to work every day.  Through the connections I’ve made during the past week, I realize that this is possible.  Thanks to my Volunteer Odyssey, I’ve met some wonderful people in the Memphis non-profit community who understand my goal.  They are eager to help me achieve it.   I’m continuing to volunteer with MIFA, Habitat for Humanity, and Porter Leath to gain some much needed non-profit experience, and I feel confident that this will help me find the perfect job.   Thanks to Volunteer Odyssey for giving me the opportunity to experience a variety of jobs in the non-profit community.  The encounters gave me the boost of confidence I needed.  I am now headed in the right direction to find a job that will allow me to provide blessings to those who need them.

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Friends Helping Friends

Photo of Home

The final day of my Volunteer Odyssey sent me to the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality, an organization that provides temporary housing and support for homeless families in the Memphis area.  Living just a couple of blocks away, I have driven past this modest two-story Craftsman style home on Poplar many times, and I never knew that it was anything other than a typical midtown home.  After speaking with Sr. Maureen, the Executive Director, I learned that it is so much more.

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

The goal at Dorothy Day House is to keep homeless families together in a safe environment and provide them with the means to re-establish their independence.  When families are left homeless, often husbands are separated from their wives and children, and sons over 6 are separated from their mothers.  As Sr. Maureen explained, Dorothy Day House helps keep the family in tact so they can focus on getting back on their feet.  The house assists with transportation, employment counseling, educational resources and mentoring until the family can find permanent housing.  Families living at Dorothy Day House also help each other by cooking and cleaning, and giving each other support.  As Sr. Maureen said, “It truly is friends helping friends.”

Each Sunday evening, the Dorothy Day House has a gathering for prayer, thanksgiving and fellowship with dessert supplied by volunteers.  This evening, there were two families of volunteers plus me.  The family currently staying at the house arrived shortly after 6:00 p.m. and we all met in the living room.  We recited the prayers as a group, then had the opportunity to announce what we were thankful for.  The mother of the family announced, “I’m thankful for the good times and the bad times, because you have to get through the bad times to appreciate the good times.”  I loved hearing that.  Despite her current circumstance, she still had a positive attitude.  I think that the Dorothy Day House has helped her keep that positive attitude.

We finished our prayer service, and shared our dessert and coffee.  The children were familiar with the routine so they all ran to the table to sample the tasty treats.  Afterwards, the children played together in the living room.  It was much too warm to play outside.  I enjoyed watching the children of the volunteers playing with the children staying at the house.  After all, we are all equal, and we all deserve respect no matter what our circumstance.  I chatted a bit more with Sr. Maureen, and told her if she ever needed help with any office work, I was her man.

As I was driving home, I realized that I am fortunate.  I may be unemployed and still looking for a job; however, I have a comfortable place to live and plenty of food to eat.  I have transportation, and I am able to take the time to search for the perfect job that meets my desire to give back to the community.  To use a phrase I have heard often this week – I am blessed.

Friends Helping Friends

Friends Helping Friends

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It’s A Blessing

MIFA Headquarters
The kitchen was spotless!

The kitchen was spotless!

Today’s adventure took me to Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association ( MIFA).  My assignment was to help with Meals on Wheels, a program that delivers warm and nutritious meals to homebound senior residents around the city.  I was looking forward to working with this program because my mom volunteered with Meals on Wheels many years ago.  I remember how cheerful she always seemed when she returned from delivering her route.

I met Linda, the Inter-Faith and Outreach Officer at MIFA, who was going to be my partner for the day.  She was a small woman with a big personality, and she was overflowing with knowledge about MIFA.  We received our route, loaded the car with two coolers of food, one for hot food and one for cold, and headed to our first stop not far from the MIFA headquarters.   “I’ll go with you at this first house so you can get comfortable with the routine,” she said.  Perfect!  At the first house, she pulled out the milk and desert from the cold container, and I pulled out the sealed tray of hot food and bread from the hot container.  As we walked up to the door, my hands quickly warmed up from the tray I was holding.  I was quite surprised at how hot the “hot” food was!  I could smell the aroma of the turkey and gravy that the seniors would be having that day which reminded me of my mom’s kitchen on Thanksgiving.   We knocked on the door and were greeted by the daughter of the woman who lived at the residence.  With a “Good morning!” and a smile, we handed her the food, and off we went to make our next delivery.

Sometimes, the residents want to chat for a few minutes; sometimes they don’t.   The main goal is to ensure they are receiving at least one nutritious meal a day since some of them will eat nothing else.

Linda and I, outside the MIFA kitchen

Linda and I, outside the MIFA kitchen

As we got back in the car, Linda told me a funny story that happened at one of the houses on our route the last time she delivered.  As she was walking back to her car, she could hear the elderly woman’s neighbor ask what was going on.  The woman explained that Linda had just delivered her meal, and it was a blessing.  “What?” the neighbor said.  “It’s a blessing!” the woman said.  “What?” the neighbor said again.  “IT’S A BLESSING!” the woman yelled.  We chuckled.

We continued on our route and went to a large two-story colonial house on South Parkway.  As we pulled up the driveway, I could tell at one time this was a stately home, but time and the elements were taking its toll on the outside.  “I can handle this one,” I said.  I gathered the food, carefully walked up to the door on the cracked and buckled concrete of the driveway, and knocked.  I could see movement on the other side of the door, so I knew the resident was on her way. Slowly, a walker appears around the door, and ever so gingerly, an auburn haired woman appears, fumbles with the lock on the door, and opens it.  “Hey there!” I said.  “You’re new!” she responded.  I explained that I was helping out for the day and handed her the food, making sure she put it safely down on the table next to the door.  She thanked me and told me to have a blessed day.  There’s that word “bless” again!

I learned how powerful that word is today after hearing it several times, and after some rich conversations with Linda in the car.  A blessing is a gift that should be shared.  Something as small as a smile or a “have a great day” could completely change a person’s day.  In today’s case, it was a warm nutritious meal provided through the Meals on Wheels program by MIFA.  Inter-Faith the “IF” of the organization’s name – signifies people of all faiths working together in the spirit of Martin Luther King’s vision.  Now that truly is a blessing.

MIFA Headquarters

MIFA Headquarters

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You Help Me While I Help You

Office Headquarters

Day 6 of my Volunteer Odyssey had me headed to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis.  I was not going to be able to play with power tools on a build site, however.  The office where all the behind the scene workers make those events happen needed my expertise.  This would give me a chance to demonstrate some of the skills I’ve learned from nearly three decades in the corporate world and put them to use in the nonprofit environment.  This is my goal by going on my Volunteer Odyssey.

I met with Amy, the Volunteer and Events Manager.  I was tapped to be her helper for the afternoon.  After explaining the process of how families are selected for a Habitat for Humanity home, as well as some of the other services they provide, such as educational programs, budgeting, and emergency repairs, she then reviewed the project I would be handling.  A group of homes will be built this fall, and we needed to line up vendors to supply coffee for the volunteers, ice, and find some ice chests at a reasonable price.

Researching vendors on the internet

Researching vendors on the internet

Now that I had my marching orders, I jumped right in and got to work.  I went online and researched coffee vendors located close to the build site and compiled my list of places to call.  I did the same for ice vendors, and once I knew the lunch rush was over, I began making my calls.  I got lots of leads, but no firm answers.  When Amy stopped by to check on how I was doing, I explained to her that several vendors wanted to follow up via email or a phone call and I wasn’t sure how she wanted to handle that.  “I have plenty of free time right now, and I’d be happy to provide them my email address and phone number and follow up from home if that’s okay,” I told her.   I added that I’m hoping to land a volunteer position similar to this where I can work a consistent schedule and gain more experience in the nonprofit world, and ultimately land a permanent job.  She said that is exactly how she got this job – she started out as a volunteer.  That’s what I needed to hear to reassure me that I’m following the right path towards my goal.

Making phone calls to vendors

Making phone calls to vendors

Amy had a couple of meetings to attend, so I continued with my project at “my” desk. Okay, I admit it – I was pretending like I was working for Habitat for Humanity as a Volunteer and Events Coordinator, and Amy was my boss.  Before I knew it, my shift was over, and I still had follow up to do.  Vendors were reluctant to commit to pricing or, even better, a donation.  I went to Amy’s office to let her know the status and confirm with her that it would be okay for me to continue it from home.  We scheduled another volunteer session for me to come back next week and would see what other projects could use my help.  We also discussed setting a weekly schedule for me to come back and volunteer.

While there was nothing glamorous about today’s experience, it was valuable to me because it helped to boost my confidence.  I felt comfortable handling the task that was given to me, and I felt proud being a Habitat employee for the afternoon, even if I was only pretending.  I also felt proud because I’m taking charge of my goal.  I’m not just sitting back waiting for it to happen – I’m making it happen, and at the same time helping others.   As Amy said, “You help me while I help you!”  So we both win.

Office Headquarters

Office Headquarters

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I’m Your Handyman

Vision Preparatory Charter School

Today’s adventure took me to Vision Preparatory Charter School,  an elementary school located in Southwest Memphis, close to downtown.  The school has a mission to provide a high quality education for underserved students in the Memphis area, and equip them with the skills needed to attain a college degree and become future leaders in the community.  As soon as I walked into the building, I felt the positive energy.  The inside was warm and inviting, and had a friendly, comfortable vibe.  I met Mr. Benton, the school’s founder and principal, and he took me on a tour of the building.

Vision Prep Core Values, posted in each classroom

Vision Prep Core Values, posted in each classroom

During the tour, he pointed out the Vision Prep Core Values that were posted on the wall of each classroom – Focus, Integrity, Respect, Self-determination and Teamwork.  Right in the middle of the list was Respect – one of my own personal core values, so I immediately felt a connection with this school.

The staff was busy getting ready for the first day of school, which starts on Monday.  My role today was Handyman!  I was to help assemble wooden cubbies for the students to store all of their belongings during class.   Anyone who knows me knows that I am certainly no Mr. Fix It; however I’m pretty good at following directions.  I tend to be a quick learner with plenty of patience.  After working on my own for a while, Mr. Benton brought me a helper – a friendly young man named Yero.  I was told he enjoys using the drill, so Yero handled anything that required the drill.  We chatted a bit as we worked.  I found out that he is going into the 8th grade at Soulsville Charter School.  I told him, “Oh, that’s a cool school!  I’ve seen them on the news.”  He agreed, but wished they had a football team, because he wanted to play football.  He said he liked science the most, and could play the drums.

Getting started on a cubby.

Getting started on a cubby.

It took us a while to get the first set of cubbies assembled.  We had a few mishaps along the way.  When Mr. Benton came by to check on us he helped us salvage the first unit.  Yero and I were so proud we were able to salvage another unit that had been assembled earlier completely on our own.  Mr. Benton asked if we were up to assemble one more unit, and we said, “Sure, if that’s what you need.”  By this time, Yero and I were partners, and had developed a system.  We knocked the last unit out in less than half an hour.

A finished product

A finished product

 

When my shift was over, I left with a good feeling.  I had made a new friend, and I had helped an organization that is focused on the future of our community – the children.  As a result of today’s experience, I’m starting to understand where my passion may be in the non-profit world.  I truly felt a connection with Vision Prep’s mission and would like to explore how I can get more involved.  One thing’s for sure – if I end up doing more handyman work, I hope I have my partner Yero to help me!

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Don’t Forget To Smile

St. Mary's Catholic Church

Today’s adventure took me to St. Mary’s Catholic Church to help feed the homeless in their Soup Kitchen.  The church is a beautiful old edifice built in the 1800’s, and one of the oldest churches in the city.

St. Mary's Catholic Church

St. Mary’s Catholic Church

I think my grandmother was married at this church.  The Soup Kitchen has been operating almost as long as the church has been here – since 1870.  This was going to be my first experience in a soup kitchen, so I didn’t know what to expect.  All I knew is that I felt like this fit perfectly with my mantra for wanting to get involved with the nonprofit world – everyone deserves respect, no matter the circumstance.

I arrived just before 7:00 a.m., and met Ron and Martin.  After taking out a load of trash, I met up with two students from Christian Brothers High School, and the father of one of them.  The four of us were then put on sandwich duty.

Getting started with sandwich duty

Getting started with sandwich duty

We made quite a few peanut butter sandwiches that would be handed out with the soup later that morning.  It’s funny how peanut butter sandwiches always take me back to my childhood – I loved them, and had them for lunch every day.  There is something comforting about a peanut butter sandwich.  After getting the sandwiches knocked out, we went upstairs to the attic above the church and sorted through clothes that would be given to the homeless later in the week.

Martin and I, in the kitchen

Martin and I, in the kitchen

During the break before service, I had a chance to chat with Martin.  I asked him how long he had been with the Soup Kitchen, and what brought him here.  He explained he had been here for several years, and shared with me what led him to the soup kitchen.  His honesty in opening up about what was in his heart made it sound like he was called to be here – like he is right where he needs to be.  Though we did not talk for long, this conversation is what I remember the most because it moved me. I could tell he was speaking from his soul.

It was time to begin serving, so we all gathered in a circle in the kitchen, and prayed, and Ron put us in our stations.  Before going out to the porch where we would be passing out the food, Ron made this point quite clear, “Tell each person ‘good morning’, and don’t forget to smile.  Your smile may be the only smile they see all day!”

We finished passing out the food just before 10:00 a.m., and as Ron said, we must have done a good job because nobody threw it back at us!  I think what I got most out of today’s experience was my conversation with Martin.   Hearing what led him to get involved with a nonprofit organization sounds similar to the path that I’m following.  Certain life experiences change your priorities, and you get called in a different direction.  This seems to be a recurring theme with the people I have encountered on my Volunteer Odyssey.

As we were finishing with the clean up, I was walking around the church to pick up trash left in the parking lot, and I came upon one of the men we had just served.  He motioned me to come over so he could throw away his empty cup in the trashcan.   I took it from him, and as I walked to the dumpster, said, “You have a great day!” and I made sure I didn’t forget to smile.

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I Came Out Smelling Like a Rose

Action Shot 1

Today’s journey took me to the  Catholic Charities of West Tennessee.  I worked with their Bouquets of Hope program, which takes donated flowers from weddings and special events, and rearranges them into smaller bouquets to deliver to people in hospitals, hospice, nursing homes, and seniors living in assisted living or retirement communities.  I arrived at 8:30am and was introduced to Lucie, the Coordinator of Supportive Services.  We chatted for a few minutes, and the one thing she said that struck me the most was how much she loved her job.  She said that had she known the job would be this rewarding, she would have gone after it so much sooner.

After a tour of the facilities, and an explanation of all the good deeds the organization does for those in need in the community, Lucie took me downstairs to the Bouquets of Hope production room where I met Maria and Michael. I saw buckets and buckets of flowers, and smelled the strong scent of roses.

Original bouquets, prior to disassembly

Original bouquets, prior to disassembly

Without saying a word, Maria handed me an apron, and I knew it was time to get to work!  She showed me how to disassemble the larger bouquets and put them in buckets of water.  By the time we finished the disassembly, other volunteers arrived. What had been a very quiet room turned into a bustling area of the friendly chatter of regulars who meet there every Monday.  I have no experience with flower arranging, but after watching all of the regulars, I think I got the hang of it.  We ended up with 80+ small bouquets to deliver.

After a quick lunch break, I had the opportunity to speak with Christine, the Manager of Social Enterprises and Community Engagement.  I asked her, “So what made you get into the nonprofit arena?”  She explained that she was going to law school and wanted to be a public defender.  After some volunteer experiences and a job opportunity at Catholic Charities, Christine realized this was where she was meant to be.  She also explained how several people at Catholic Charities came from corporate backgrounds much like myself, and chose to change their career direction toward the nonprofit world.  That was encouraging to hear.

Finished products - ready to load into the van

Finished products – ready to load into the van

By the time Christine and I finished our conversation, Lucie brought the van around. We loaded up all of the arrangements for our road trip to St. Mark’s Village in Moscow, TN – about 45 miles east of Memphis.  We met up with the van carrying boxes of food to share with the residents along with our bouquets.  We quickly devised a game plan for the four-plex buildings, and immediately went into delivery mode.

What struck me the most with meeting each of the residents was how happy they were to see us – even though they had never met us.  I remember one resident in particular – Barbara – was so excited to see us!  She immediately opened her door to let us in.  I told her I would put the vase of flowers on her dining table, and she said, “Don’t mind the mess on that table, I’ve been paying my monthly bills.”  So I said, “Well that’s always fun!”  She replied, “Ain’t it though?”  Then we both laughed.   She asked, “You got time to sit down for a bit?”  How could I not?  So I sat down on the ottoman next to her chair and stayed to visit.

Me hanging out for a bit with my new friend Barbara.

Me hanging out for a bit with my new friend Barbara.

Towards the end of our delivery, I met another sweet soul – Aida!  She was so proud of the flowers we left her, so she went around to her neighbors to make sure they all were getting them as well.  We were at our last apartment, and couldn’t get an answer at the door, so Aida comes up and starts banging on the door, yelling the resident’s name, and sure enough, the door opens.

As we were leaving, Aida said, “This is a blessing!  Y’all keep doing wonderful things!”   That one statement made my day!  It is a blessing to be able to do nice things for others with no expectation of a good deed being reciprocated.  Too often we forget this in today’s world.  I would say that what I learned the most from today’s experience is this – there is reward in doing for others – no matter how small the act.

We got back in the van for the 45-minute drive back to Memphis. Lucie gave me a warm hug as I was leaving.  I drove off with a smile, because I just had a great day, and I could still smell the strong scent of roses.

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Order Up!

My turn to work the griddle

Today was the first day of my week long Volunteer Odyssey. I made sure I went to bed early last night to get a good night’s sleep because I had to be well rested for what I knew would be a busy day starting at 8:00 a.m.! I’ll admit, I didn’t sleep that well – waking up numerous times during the night. I wouldn’t say I was nervous – just a bit unsure. I knew that I would be meeting with folks from Porter-Leath  at the Southern Thunder Harley-Davidson location in Southaven to help with their Salute to Seniors Poker Run. The event would be outside, and it would involve cooking breakfast and lunch for the participants. Two things concerned me. First – while I’m not new to the brutal summers in Memphis, I will say I do not do well in extreme heat and humidity. Second – while I enjoy cooking, and like having small dinner gatherings with family and friends, I have never cooked for anyone outside of my own home, or for a large group. Would I be able to handle the heat? Would I be able to handle cooking for a crowd that I did not know?

I arrived at the location promptly at 8:00 a.m. and was greeted with a warm hug from Angela Meekins, the Development Coordinator. She made me feel so welcome – such a great beginning to this experience! One of the first questions I got was – “Do you know how to cook pancakes?” My response – “I have never cooked pancakes” which was the truth.

Rob manning the griddle

Rob manning the griddle

We proceeded to get the registration tent and the cooking tent set up. I had some time to talk with Judy, the Generations Manager, and Rob, the Development Manager.  We talked about my background, and I asked them about their experience at Porter-Leath. I learned that they both have been there for quite a while.  Then it was cooking time – Rob stepped up and manned the griddle, while Judy and I helped serve the pancakes and sausage as the participants came to our tent.

My turn to work the griddle

My turn to work the griddle

When it was time for Rob and Judy to go to some of the other stops on the run, I was asked – “James, can you handle this?” My response – “Sure!” The spatula was handed to me, and off they went! Alright, I got this!  I started pouring the pancake batter and dropping the sausage patties onto the griddle, and got the hang of that spatula. Before long, I was flipping flapjacks and sausage patties like a cook in a diner! All of the sudden, the breakfast shift was over. In walked Dennis, the Vice President of Social Services and my relief for the lunch shift.

Dennis and I had a long talk while we waited for the lunch supplies to arrive. He told me a lot about Porter-Leath and the history of the organization. While I was somewhat familiar with Porter-Leath, I had no idea about the depth of the history or how long the organization has been serving the community. We talked about growing up in Memphis, and how much we love this city, and we talked a lot about food – how we both love spicy food, but not so hot that it feels like punishment. Then the food arrived and Dennis took charge of that grill. He truly was the “Grill Master”, while Judy and I helped serve the food. The afternoon flew by. Before I knew it the event was winding down, and we were dismantling the tents.

Dennis the Grill Master

Dennis the Grill Master

What struck me about this experience was the sense of family I felt with the Porter-Leath crew. There was such a spirit of support and pride that I witnessed from all of the members of this organization. They all seemed to love their job. Everyone was so proud to talk about the t-shirts they sold, and the tips that we made to support the RSVP Program – a program that pairs senior residents with children in need to work as mentors and help them build confidence and life skills. What I got out of today’s experience is that I’m very proud of Porter-Leath, and I want to learn more about this organization. As I was leaving for the day, I told everyone that they would be seeing me around the office soon. Oh, and by the way – I never even noticed the heat – there was a nice breeze all day long!

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Prelude: James O’Toole

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

New Profile Pic

It’s strange how this quote from Socrates popped into my head as I sat down to write the prelude to my Volunteer Odyssey week. My college Philosophy professors would be so pleased that I remembered this quote from my days at CBU many, MANY years ago! I’m not sure what made me think of it, but after I reflected for a bit, I thought it was quite appropriate. I have had a lot of time recently to examine my life, and through much discernment, came to the conclusion that it was time for a change. After being laid off from a successful career spanning over 27 years with a marketing services company, I decided to take the opportunity to move back to my hometown of Memphis, and work on a career change. While I was grateful for my experience in the corporate world, my job had gotten to the point where it was just a job, and was lacking – lacking depth, lacking reward, and lacking a sense of fulfillment. I wanted a career that at the end of the day, I knew I made a difference in someone’s life, and helped my community. But how do I accomplish this,

after being away from Memphis for over 18 years? That’s when I learned about Volunteer Odyssey. I am so thankful for getting connected with this organization, and I am excited to see what I learn from the experiences during the next week. I look forward to learning about the many non-profit organizations in town, and hope to find the perfect place to start a new volunteer relationship, and who knows, maybe even find a new career.

I hope you will follow me on this journey!

– James O’Toole

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