Transcript: Kathy Grubelic, Habitat for Humanity (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode 19: Kathy Grubelic, Habitat for Humanity.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Welcome to another episode of The Art of Volunteering. I’m your host, Stormy Bell. Today we’re sitting down with Kathy Grubelic, Volunteer Coordinator and Community Engagement Ambassador for Habitat for Humanity Cape May out of Cape May, New Jersey. Kathy has been with Habitat Cape May since this past April, and has been involved with nonprofit organizations for over 15 years. She left the corporate world in search of ways that she could put her skills to work in order to help others. The work she does with Habitat is very rewarding and all important to not only herself and the families that they partner with, but also to all the volunteers, board members, and those who shop and donate to the ReStore. Welcome, Kathy.

Kathy Grubelic (00:46): Thank you, Stormy. Thank you for having me.

Stormy Bell (00:49): Awesome. To start us off, I’d like to invite you to share exactly what you do as a Volunteer Coordinator slash Community Engagement Ambassador. It sounds like a lot of work.

Kathy Grubelic (01:01): Well the Volunteer Coordinator part is actually not that hard. That’s the easy one. We often get people coming to us either through the ReStore word of mouth. They’re looking for opportunities to help, and I do the onboarding. I make sure all the waivers are signed, give them the history of Habitat, try and outline all the opportunities to volunteer, and then try and match up their talents and what they would like to do with what our needs are. There’s always something for everybody. As the Community Engagement Ambassador by try and go out to the public or not try. I do, I go out to the public and promote some of our programs. We reach out to civic groups, Kiwanis Clubs, AARP groups. I’m right now reaching out to all the high schools in the county, a lot of the churches in the county to let them know what we do and the impact that we have in the community. In that way I’m also recruiting for more volunteers as well as spreading the good news about Habitat, what we’re able to do, and how we help partner with families to provide affordable housing.

Stormy Bell (02:23): Oh, that’s awesome. I really like that. How many volunteers do you work with out of the Cape May Habitat for Humanity?

Kathy Grubelic (02:32): I don’t know the exact number but we have a couple hundred volunteers between our build sites and our and our ReStore. We also have volunteers that help on various committees. We have committees that are all volunteer that work with our Family Selection Committee and our Family Support Committee. Once families are selected to partner with to build these homes, we have a committee of wonderful people with enormous hearts that help them all through the entire process. We also have a board, a completely volunteer board, of like 13 people. So yeah, we’re two to 300 volunteers minimum.

Stormy Bell (03:20): Wow. A lot of places they plug in and get involved.

Kathy Grubelic (03:23): Yeah. 

Stormy Bell (03:24): You mentioned all the places that you go out to, to let the community groups that you let them know that you have volunteer opportunities. Do you find that your volunteers run the gamut with their age? Or are they older or younger? What do you find?

Kathy Grubelic (03:43): Well, here in Cape May County we have a pretty large retirement age group. Late fifties into the eighties. A lot of our consistently regular volunteers probably are in that age group. That’s not to say, you know, we don’t, we do also get a lot of like high school kids. Their community service is either warranted because they needed to graduate or they’re part of the National Honors Society and then there are a lot of kids out there that just wanna help. It doesn’t hurt their resume for getting into college, but then they end up staying and they volunteer with us for years and years and that’s great too. I would say the bulk of them are our adults. A lot of our builds, for example, are during the business day, so that’s why we do get a lot of retirees or you know, people like that.

Stormy Bell (04:46): That’s awesome. You’ve talked a little bit about this, but can you share how your volunteers connect the community with Habitat to help your mission and advocate for affordable housing? Like how that works together?

Kathy Grubelic (05:04): Sure. A lot of our volunteers, came through social networks of their own like Lions Club. Word spreads and next thing you know, we have a lot of volunteers that work in our ReStore that have all been together in Lions Club, and then that spreads. Through other philanthropic organizations like the Lions Clubs and Kiwanis Clubs and all those other nonprofit kind of organizations, we all help each other. Through those organizations and the churches and whatnot by the word getting out, families who are interested in partnering with us that need affordable housing, have an even better avenue, I guess in a way, a bigger avenue to come to us. They already have some connections or they’ve heard about it through their church groups who have people who are personally involved with us. Word of mouth is like the best advertising.,

Stormy Bell (06:13): It’s the best in every industry.

Kathy Grubelic (06:17): Absolutely.

Stormy Bell (06:19): For the people who receive houses, do you see them come back and volunteer?

Kathy Grubelic (06:28): Yes. The families that we partner with don’t receive a house. We don’t give out houses. We partner with them. We like to say we give a hand up and not a handout. They have to have income and be able to get a mortgage. It’s a very affordable mortgage. The houses are sold at an extremely affordable price. Anybody who knows anything about real estate these days, affordable is almost nonexistent anymore. Here in Cape May County especially, we have a lot of seasonal businesses here. A lot of the older homes or the homes where they were able to rent them or live in them affordably, are now being torn down. These enormous homes are being built for the summer rentals.

The prices down here have skyrocketed as I know they have in many places throughout the country. We are able to provide affordable housing because we’re building it with primarily volunteers. That cuts a lot of the overhead right there. We do have a lot of corporations who donate. We apply for grants and things. The families that we partner with also go through a process of learning. They’ve never owned a home before, so what happens if the hot water heater breaks? They need to manage their budget and know how to apply for a mortgage and keep their budget on track for their home. They also have to put in 300 hours of sweat equity. They’re helping them construct the house. They’re helping in the ReStore, they’re volunteering. They might get a group from their church to come and build for a day, and those hours can help towards their total hours. So it’s truly a partnership and oh, I love that.

Stormy Bell (08:46): Very cool. I like that. Talk a little bit about the ReStore. I was first introduced to the ReStore. I’m recently now just outside of Philadelphia, we’d come down from North Jersey. I’d heard of Habitat for Humanity but when I moved down here, I don’t know what I was looking for, I guess we moved and we needed furniture, or I was looking for furniture and I’m like Habitat for Humanity has a ReStore? I’ve never heard of that before. So tell me a little bit about the ReStore.

Kathy Grubelic (09:19): Well, our ReStore here just celebrated our fifth birthday. Even though Cape May Habitat for Humanity has been around since the early eighties, I think we’ve built our first house sometime in the eighties, the ReStore is only five years old. Now, there’s probably an affiliate in almost every county in the country for  Habitat for Humanity. We’re Habitat for Humanity Cape May County. Every affiliate operates the same and different. Not every Habitat affiliate has a ReStore. That’s number one. Not every ReStore is operating the same. Some ReStores deal with building supplies, building materials. We don’t really have that because we don’t have the customers down here for that. The customers down here are looking for furniture and small appliances and things of that nature.

Our ReStore is really pretty cool. We have the most amazing volunteers that they come up and they set up these vignettes of furniture that all matches and they put things on a wall put just so you could get, like if you walked into a furniture store and they have the perfect vase on the coffee table next to the couch with a beautiful print on the wall. We have wonderful volunteers who do little settings like that. We have a volunteer that collects costume jewelry and she fixes that up, polishes it up, and we have a nice little jewelry display. I don’t know if there’s many other affiliate ReStores that have a jewelry display like we have. We have a lot of glasses and dishes and, you know, primarily furniture. I could walk through on a Tuesday and Thursday it’s all different, all new furniture. I saw a whole bunch of new stuff coming in through the back door today, I can’t wait to go downstairs and see what came. The ReStore is a busy place.

Stormy Bell (11:26): Well I think I’m gonna stop by cause I like jewelry, so I’m gonna come check that out. Give me a good excuse to come to Cape May for the day.

Kathy Grubelic (11:36): You’re not far, if you’re near Philly. You’re like neighbors.

Stormy Bell (11:39): Yeah, yeah. I’ve been there. We do some visits with the New Jersey Audubon out of Cape May.

Kathy Grubelic (11:46): Okay.

Stormy Bell (11:47): How far are you from there?

Kathy Grubelic (11:51): We’re not far at all. We’re in Cape May Court House.

Stormy Bell (11:56): Okay. Okay.

Kathy Grubelic (11:58): Which is right outside Stone Harbor.

Stormy Bell (12:00): Nice. I will find my way one weekend this fall.

Kathy Grubelic (12:04): Yeah, definitely.

Stormy Bell (12:08): Before we came on, you mentioned a little bit about build sites. Is that more the traditional picture people have when it comes to Habitat for Humanity? Can you just kinda share a little bit about that?

Kathy Grubelic (12:19): Sure. I think it is. When I think of Habitat for Humanity, before I came here, I thought of Jimmy and Rosaline Carter with their hard hats and the hammers. Some affiliates build a lot of houses a year. We’re a bit smaller. This year we have two homes we’re building. We’ve already partnered with two families and we have a whole set of build volunteers that they just can’t wait to get a hammer in their hand and start building. The build sites are very active once they get started. So far we did have a groundbreaking last week, a little celebration for the first family. The house will probably get started in about a month from now that will actually have volunteers on the job site. Our construction manager’s working with getting all the permits and things finalized that we need to get it going.

Stormy Bell (13:25): Is there something else about it? You have two in the Cape May area that are gonna be happening.

Kathy Grubelic (13:32): Yeah, we stay in Cape May County. That’s our boundaries.

Stormy Bell (13:35): That’s your boundaries. The Cape May County. Nice. I probably should have asked you this earlier on in the conversation, but can you give a little to our listeners a little bit of history about Habitat for Humanity? You made me think of it when you mentioned the Carters.

Kathy Grubelic (13:54): The Habitat was, well our affiliate was formed in the eighties. I think the first Habitat for Humanity was in the seventies I think. It started down in the Atlanta area in Georgia by a couple of couples who recognized the need for affordable housing. They got together with their friends and they went around to church groups and raised some money and built their first house. It was a little while after that that the Carters joined and helped catapult their notoriety. That’s how most of the affiliates, if not all the affiliates have started. Here in Cape May County, there was the First Baptist Church of Cape May Court House. Same kind of thing.  They got together with a couple of couples who recognized the need for affordable housing and they started raising money and they went around to different churches. There was the First Baptist Church of Cape May Court House, there was the Messiah Lutheran Church. It took a couple of years, but they finally raised enough money to build the first house. The house that we just did the groundbreaking for last week, that’ll be our 20th house that we will build. We hope to increase the number of house homes we build each year.

Stormy Bell (15:32): That’s such a milestone. I mean, when you think of everything that goes into a house on both the partner side and on the volunteer side and all the resources it takes, that’s just awesome. I love it. Okay. I know you’ve only been with Habitat for Humanity, Cape May County since April, but can you share a story of impact, something that you’ve seen or witnessed or just shows the impact that habitat has.

Kathy Grubelic (16:06): Yes, especially with our affiliate in particular, one of the two homes we’re gonna build this year is an ADA compliant home. The family who we are partnered with have a daughter who uses a wheelchair. She has a rare disease issue. She now uses a wheelchair and they live on the second floor duplex in a busy street. That is so meaningful to all of us that this family is going to be able to have an ADA compliant home. It’s a ranch. We generally build ranch homes down here in Cape May County. Some people build two stories, but generally in Cape May we’ve just been doing the ranch homes. They’ll have everything on one floor, it’s ADA compliant. Habitat for Humanity International, we do have plans for an ADA compliant home but because of the lot situation, things had to be switched.

There’s a little delay in getting it going because the architect had to approve it. You know now what was on the right side now needs to be on the left just because of the lot. To me right now, especially with my history of working with nonprofits, it’s always been for helping individuals in the organizations who support individuals with disabilities. We’re providing a house, we’re helping to partner with this family so they can get an affordable home. It’s extremely impactful, extremely impactful because the kind of expenses people don’t realize, I should say, the amount of expenses that a special needs issue in a family, the impact that has on your day-to-day expenses, it’s huge. This is gonna be huge for this family and for all of us. We’re all very emotionally attached to this one.

Stormy Bell (18:10): Oh, you gave me goosebumps. Just seeing that comfort full circle for you having that background and then seeing this now. That’s awesome. You’ve been there since April, but you’ve been in nonprofits for 15 years. Something along the lines, I’m sure hasn’t gone right. Can you share a blooper or something that didn’t go as planned and what you learned from it or what you did differently because of it?

Kathy Grubelic (18:47): Well, I’ll tell you about a challenge I currently have that is getting better. Our build volunteers have never had to sign up for a shift because we wanna grow. And the best way to grow is to be organized and, you know, manage these things. We’ve instituted an online signup system for our volunteers. From what I have heard from past experiences with builds, sometimes we have too many volunteers on a site and then the next day not enough show up. We wanna make sure if we have volunteers coming that they’re happy and they feel productive and useful but if we don’t have enough work for them to do, are they gonna come back? We wanna have it be a rewarding experience for everybody so we’ve instituted this sign in program and it’s been a little bit of a challenge to get people to change their ways.

[Some] of our builder volunteers have been here for years and here’s this new person coming in and saying we’re gonna have to use this sign in, get a password. It’s been a little bit of a challenge but it’s getting there. It’s getting there. A lot of people are starting to get used to it. They know that we have to do this in order to grow. It’s been a few months in the making, so hopefully by the time we’re actually on a build site, they’ll know when they’re coming and that there’s a job for them to do that day.

Stormy Bell (20:20): That’s awesome. I’ve had a couple different people I’ve interviewed over the past year, and that is something that’s come into play where technology is a good tool but it’s bringing the people around to it is the challenge.

Kathy Grubelic (20:38): Everywhere I’ve been, if you have volunteers that are standing around with nothing to do, they’re not gonna come back. They’re less likely to come back, especially if they haven’t been there before. If you have a new volunteer and they have nothing to do. You need to keep your volunteers engaged and you need to make sure that they feel productive and feel like they’re contributing. We think that using a sign in system like this will help because then we know we’ll have enough people for all the work at hand and they know there’s gonna be a hammer for them to pick up when they come. You know, it’s not like all the tools are gonna be used already.

Stormy Bell (21:19): Well I wish you much success with that because the outcome is worth it. It’s just getting there. Now you get the love on Habitat for Humanity Cape May. Why should people get involved? Why do you love it so much? Just love on your organization.

Kathy Grubelic (21:48): Well, when you asked me the impact thing, that was actually my loving thing too. It’s just so rewarding to be able to be a part of an organization that helps people find an affordable place to live. Having an affordable home in a safe neighborhood not only helps that individual family, but it helps the whole community at large. It’s just spreading the love. Like we were talking about earlier about word of mouth, it’s kind of like that too. The more we can do to help people get into affordable houses in safe neighborhoods, it’ll just spread from there I think. I love that Habitat for Humanity does that, and I love that Habitat for Humanity International we go everywhere and do that. If there’s a crisis, after a hurricane, in the Ukraine, building refugee housing in Poland. I just love everything about what the organization does to help people put a roof over their head. It’s one of life’s basic needs and I just love that we help partner with families and people who need it.

Stormy Bell (23:01): You’re seeing lives change because of it.

Kathy Grubelic (23:03): Yeah, absolutely.

Stormy Bell (23:05): That’s awesome.

Kathy Grubelic (23:06): You gotta love that, right?

Stormy Bell (23:11): Absolutely. All right Kathy, thank you for being on The Art of Volunteering today. I’ve enjoyed this conversation and I’m sure we’ve motivated some people to sign in on the sign in sheet so they can pick up a hammer.

Kathy Grubelic (23:34): Just email me and we’ll get you started wherever you wanna go. Wherever you wanna help.

Stormy Bell (23:39): Well, again, thank you for coming on and I hope to see the rest of you the next time on The Art of Volunteering. Have a great day.

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Transcript: Adonia Magwaza, Zimbabwean Pastor (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode 18: Adonia Magwaza, Zimbabwean Pastor.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Welcome to another episode of The Art of Volunteering. Today, I’m interviewing my friend Adonia Mag- Oh, I messed that up. I’ll get it.

Adonia Magwaza (00:20): Magwaza.

Stormy Bell (00:21): Magwaza.

Adonia Magwaza (00:22): Yes!

Stormy Bell (00:23): Adonia Magwaza. There we go! He’s my friend and he’s coming to us from Zimbabwe this morning. Welcome!

Adonia Magwaza (00:36): Welcome. It’s good to connect with you. I’m so privileged and happy to be with you.

Stormy Bell (00:44): Oh, I thank you so much. Well, as you know, the podcast is about volunteering, so I’m just gonna start off with, tell me about yourself. Tell me about the church that you pastor and we’ll go from there.

Adonia Magwaza (01:01): Thank you so much Stormy. I’m married to my wife, Lee. We are blessed with four children, two boys and two girls. All of my children are serving in the Lord. We are the lead pastors of Power and Light Church here in Zimbabwe, a ministry that we founded about eight years ago. We are best in Harare, which is the capital of Zimbabwe and we have continued to be serving the Lord and the community. It is our pleasure to serve the Lord but one thing for sure [is] that you’ll have to have a lot of faith to be serving [the] Lord here in Zimbabwe. This is in reference to the, maybe some of you might know that over 90% of our people are unemployed. We’ve been having over two decades of economical hardships so most of the people that we are serving here are people that need help.

There are very few people or none at all that are able to help most of the people that are needy in terms of employment, because most of the people are not employed. Just before COVID things were beginning to take off, but because COVID, we had some lockdown. As you may know that most of our people depend on vending or self self-employment kind of selling and buying business. Things tend to be very difficult for our people in terms of how to make up their own living. That definitely had a great impact to the church.

Stormy Bell (03:17): Okay. You serve with your wife and your kids. Do you have other people in your church that help you meet the needs of the unemployed?

Adonia Magwaza (03:29): We currently do not have some people that are employed in our church at the moment. One person that I must be very grateful and thank God for him is Dr. Jim Henry.

Stormy Bell (03:42): Yes.

Adonia Magwaza (03:43): You might know Dr. Jim Henry. He has been a really great blessing to our ministry and to our church whenever he can. He been really standing with us. Other than that, the church itself is really in a believing mode. We just have to believe, and that’s all I can say.

Stormy Bell (04:06): That’s all you can say. What are some of the things that you do to reach the people that you mentioned, the unemployed? What are some of the things that you’re actually doing to help them?

Adonia Magwaza (04:19): One of the things that we’ve attempted to do a couple of years ago is doing some corn farming. We have been trying to, because the last year we had better rains. We depend mostly with the natural rains. So we rented out a piece of land and put some corn there. We were able to have two tons of corn, which was quite fair and most of that has been just channeled to help the underprivileged in our church and to take care of our needs. Other than that there are some projects that people might think of and that we’ve been trying to work off. For instance, I and my wife have been involved in sewing, making some bed covers and knitting in the past years. Since the COVID pandemic came in, that has been very difficult because most of our stuff were being sold to South Africa or neighboring countries, and the borders have been closed. We just have machinery here. There are no consumers in our country who can buy our stuff. This is one of the things that we are doing at the moment.

Stormy Bell (05:54): Okay. All right. Do you have other people in the community that help you sew and help you do these things when you’re able to sell? Like, do you have other people helping you?

Adonia Magwaza (06:06): Yes, my wife and I had 10 other members of our church that were helping with the sewing and mostly because the orders would go in South Africa, so they would help with sewing before we had the pandemic arrive. My wife and I taught them and imparted skills on them to do that. We also have some other children that we help whenever we can with fees, the tuition fees.

Stormy Bell (06:40): What does that look like for nutrition fees?

Adonia Magwaza (06:47): The tuition fees we are talking about school fees.

Stormy Bell (06:50): Oh school fees.

Adonia Magwaza (06:53): For instance, at high school, they are paying 70 USD to attend, which is four months. We have not been able to help all, I mean, maybe five or five families whenever we can. It has not been consistent, but when we can, that’s what we also try to do.

Stormy Bell (07:16): Okay. So you give up your time, you give up your treasure. That’s awesome. That’s really cool. Why do you do this? Is it because of your faith? Is this why you do it? Do you have a heart for your people, which I believe you do. Tell me why you do this? Why do you serve?

Adonia Magwaza (07:44): I believe that God called us to be delight and shine to our people. This is a hard thing. It’s very difficult if I can either even think about myself, but this is something that we are. This is who we are and we feel that God wants us to serve the community and reach out to the people.

Stormy Bell (08:08): That’s awesome. How many people do you have in your church?

Adonia Magwaza (08:14): Before the COVID, our numbers were getting up to 1,200 members, but that was not in one location. We had seven locations throughout our country. At the moment, things are just starting up and I’m still here to visit some of the churches because the government just relaxed the restrictions a couple of weeks ago. So I’m in the process of going there and seeing them physically. One thing that I’ve also been trying to do is that I have been trying to reach out to those that, which are very few indeed, to them via WhatsApp during the lockdown. There are very few people that have access to internet and smartphones so that number obviously doesn’t represent the number of our congregation.

Stormy Bell (09:20): Right, right. Wow. Now, if you could give from your heart, why people should serve, why should people should volunteer? What would that be? If you could give people a message?

Adonia Magwaza (09:38): One of the things that we all know is John 3 verse 16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Apart from just reaching out to the people, we also are convicted in our faith that there is God in heaven, and we are just passing by the Earth. We need to fulfill the commission to reach out to the people, to receive Christ as their savior. Other than that, there is so much turmoil that is happening even to unbelievers, those that are not part of our church. They’re going through some life struggles that there are very few people that are giving themselves to the community and to do this work.

Stormy Bell (10:40): Okay. Very good. Those are all my questions for today. I have so enjoyed talking with you. I will have to have you on the show again to talk about some other things. Oh, actually I was checking out your Facebook page and talked about you’re part of the Legacy Minded Men. You’re a crew member. Do you do that now? Are you still a crew member?

Adonia Magwaza (11:09): Definitely. I’ve been part of the Legacy Minded Men since 2007. I must admit that this has been one of the pillars in terms of the strengthening up, understand, especially when you are serving international like us, that you need some people around you. You get to a time that you need people that you can lean on, people that can give you a shoulder, people that can encourage, pray for you. So I specifically want to appreciate, especially the president of Legacy Minded Men, Joe Pellegrino, his crew team, Craig and Ron. There are a lot of guys that they’ve been praying for us. I’ve been also trying to on [a] monthly basis, bring men together and encourage them.

Stormy Bell (12:08): Okay. Very good. Well, again, thank you so much for coming on. We will have you on another time, so I wanna thank you and God bless you and the ministry that you’re doing and how you’re serving your congregation and your people. Thank you so much.

Adonia Magwaza (12:29): Stormy, you are a great blessing. I pray that this will be just a beginning. In fact, this is my first time to be in a program like this. So be patient with me and I’ll get this right. Thank you.

Stormy Bell (12:49): Thank you.

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Transcript: Shirley Fan-Chan, Students Assisting Students (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode 17: Shirley Fan-Chan, Students Assisting Students.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Welcome to The Art of Volunteering. I’m your host, Stormy Bell. Today I’m here with a fellow alumnus. We overlapped our years in college while attending Lasell College, now Lasell University. Shirley is the founding member of Students Assisting Students, a 100% volunteer group who packs care bags for college students and needs. So Shirley Fan-Chan, please introduce yourself to our audience.

Shirley Fan-Chan (00:27): Thank you, Stormy [for] having me here today to talk about something that I’m very passionate about and have been doing for over seven years. It is an organization that I founded with a couple of my friends called Students Assisting Students. The origin of this program actually started very organically and is really because of the work that I do. Just to give you a bit of context how I came to this point to create this project for such a long time, I actually had [the] opportunity to work for a high education institution in Massachusetts. University of Massachusetts, Boston. I had the privilege to open an office on campus to serve homeless and foster care students. Through that experience, I met a lot of students who were struggling, who were underserved, who were underprivileged.

I [also] had my own personal experience. I have three sons and one of my sons actually was on his way to college. During that time we were talking about, ‘oh, on your way to college, who can support you? What do you need?’ Being a mom, I always want to make sure my son has everything throughout the school year. This is very typical, right? Every parent who has a child who is on their way to go to college or they have gone into college and the first thing is do they need anything? Do I need to send them anything? Do I need to buy them anything? On campus when I was doing my job many times students would come to my office and ask for supplies as simple as a pen or a writing pad. So that idea actually grew from the job that I was doing during the day when I was at work.

Shirley Fan-Chan (02:16): Students had come to my office for different needs, different reasons and when I went home I said to my son, ‘you’re very lucky that you have a mom who could provide all this stuff to you as simple as the stationary food supplies or snacks’. For students that I work with, they never had those people around them to provide those care packages. That’s how the idea grew. I just grabbed my friends who always volunteer with me and I said ‘hey, I have this idea in mind’, and you know how that works right? When you have friends, you kind of corrupt them into that idea. It’s like, you know what? They really need it. They don’t have family like you and me to support our children. So that’s how we started. We started very small.

Shirley Fan-Chan (03:02): At the beginning the project only provided to the foster care youth who were on their way to post-secondary education, because back then I actually had a couple of foster care students on campus that I was working with. A lot of times, because they were in the state system, they never had any family members supporting them. Because of that I automatically became that trusted adult in their lives. They would come to me for anything that they need or they want to talk about anything. Because of that, the original [purpose] of this project was only to provide care back to the Department of Family and Children’s Services, who have a group of foster care youth who were on their way to applying to colleges and universities. That’s how we started in 2013.

Stormy Bell (03:55): Wow. How many students do you give these packages to now? You started humbly, so where are you at?

Shirley Fan-Chan (04:07): What we do is we provide care packages twice a year for the fall semester and the spring semester. We just finished the spring semester packages a month ago. We did 300 bags. We divided into five campuses. We have contact amongst state university and community colleges in Massachusetts and we would reach out to them every semester, speaking at the beginning of the semester. We ask them if they would like to get some care packages for their students who are struggling food insecurity and housing insecurity. A lot of times the respondent was ‘yeah, absolutely. We would love to have support’ and that’s how we started. Interestingly, I think we all had gone through the past two years with Covid, right? I think for many of us, kind of like being stuck at home and not realizing we actually have so many students out there, we’re not getting any needs and services met.

Last fall, I actually got an email from one of my campus contacts and asked for help because when they reopen the campus after lockdown, they email me and said ‘hey Shirley, I actually want to ask you if you guys have any supplies that you can provide to us, because reopening the campuses, we’re gonna see a lot of needs coming into our office’. Because of that email last fall, I kind of did the things that I knew how to do. [Called] all my friends to action and say ‘hey, this is what happened. We need 300 bags, are you in?’ The response was just so amazing and I was really thankful for all my friends in my community who came forward to support this project.

Stormy Bell (05:51): Very cool. Where do your donations come from? How do you collect all the supplies?

Shirley Fan-Chan (05:57): The donations actually came from the community, word of mouth. Just like you mentioned earlier, our group is a hundred percent volunteer. We don’t do fundraising. We’re not 501(c)(3). We rely on donations from any members who are interested in this project. It’s really based on word of mouth. We spread it out through social media, which is Facebook and Instagram. We have a core group of folks who volunteer in this project and would just spread the word out and we collect donations. Some folks instead of giving us donations, they would write us a check and we will use the cash to go buy the supplies.

Stormy Bell (06:39): Very cool. Now I know you use a lot of students in I guess the packing, but what else do they do and how does that play into like student leadership?

Shirley Fan-Chan (06:53): The student leadership piece actually came up for my son when he was in high school when he found out this is the project that I was doing. He actually initiated a couple of his friends to participate. What they did was they helped us to fundraise. One of his friends was a member of a drama club, and that’s how it all started. When he was doing the drama throughout the school year, once a year at the end of the theater play, they actually made a pledge in front of all the audience and introduced the project that we were doing. People would put money in, literally in the jar, and like $5, $1. That’s how they start fundraising. Because of that experience, I realized that this is such a great opportunity for young people like the high school junior [and] seniors to learn about how fortunate they were in that position, but they also have the power to help other students similar to them that they’re actually moving on to post secondary education.

I thought that idea was so wonderful and I told my friends, ‘how about we continue to recruit young people from high school’ and we all love that idea. Since then we have been nonstop recruiting high school students to participate in this project. They can do different roles. They can help us to do fundraising if they have fundraising ideas. Some of them, like for example, one of my sons who belonged to a karate school and one of the student leaders from the karate class took the initiative to fundraise during the karate classes and fundraise cash for us to go buy supplies. It’s a different idea, different way, depends on the student leader how they want to do it. This year the student leader was helping us to do a lot of supplies coordination, collecting the donations, counting the donations, [and] making sure the donations are all in place when on the packing day. We’re giving them different roles depending on the age of course. Usually for the high school students we delegate more tasks, more responsibilities to them. If they were middle school students who want to come and volunteer, we assign them to come to volunteer the day of the packing, to do the packing.

Stormy Bell (09:15): Okay. About how many volunteers do you have? Your last packing day was, what April 9th? Was that your last packing day? That day, how many students did you have?

Shirley Fan-Chan (09:25): We have about 10 students at least because people come and go. I didn’t even count. We always have a group of adults we call those counters. The adults were the ones that did all the arrangements, all the set up. Once a student arrived, we would show them how to pack the bags and then they would just go just like an assembly line in the factory. They would just go around the table and pick up everything,  put it in a bag, hand it to the adult, and then the adult would count them. We also have a small group of adults and students, they’re writing the cheer card. Now this is something that we believe. Just giving a bag, sometimes the student didn’t know what it was all about. So we decide to give them a cheer card in the bag so they know that actually a group of people somewhere care about them, want to make sure they have their needs, and want to make sure that they know that we are cheering them when they’re doing the school in the post-secondary education. That’s why we also have a group of volunteers sitting at the side table to write the cheer card.

Stormy Bell (10:32): That’s awesome. Have you received any feedback from the students who received the bags? Do you know the impact that it’s made or anything like that?

Shirley Fan-Chan (10:42): Yep. Once in a while we have a thank you card from the student going through the campus office to send it back to us. I think the appreciation definitely was there. One card that really touched my heart was saying that she was glad that someone was thinking of her. That’s something that I think anyone who read that card was so touched because this is exactly what we want to do. To remind them that they are not alone in what they’re doing. We have a group of people, we have a community behind them, cheering for them, and making sure that they will succeed in [their] education.

Stormy Bell (11:19): Nice. Very nice. I don’t really have any more outright questions, but I would love to hear some stories like just volunteering or your origins or the impact. Just tell me some stories that you’ve experienced.

Shirley Fan-Chan (11:36): Sure. A lot of my friends always ask me, ‘well, why are you doing what you’re doing? Because you’re constantly finding projects to volunteer’. I think this is something that we all agree with our society, with our community. We will always need someone to give back. We’ll always need someone to make sure the unfortunate, the underserved, the underprivileged folks will get [the] support that they need because we are very fortunate to have the support that we need. I’m constantly looking for different projects, ideas. The care bags project is one of my many other volunteer projects that I’m working on. I think this is something that my friends sometime ask me, how could they do the same thing? I think this is kind of the word of advice that I always give to my friend is find your passion.

Find what you believed in because what you believed in what your values is, is gonna guide what you want to volunteer for your community. Right. I have this philosophy because my profession is, I work for nonprofits for many years since I graduated from college. That’s my calling, right? Helping others, giving back. I think one thing that we need to know is anytime when you turn around, when you see someone in need, you may think that, well, I’m only one person. I can only do so much. Actually it’s not. You’re doing a community work. By being one person, you can ask around, ask your friends, ask your family. You create a community of support for those underprivileged, underserved. I think that’s kind of my philosophy. Whatever volunteer project that I am working on, I always have a group of volunteers that we all get together, we all share the same beliefs, same values, and we all believe that giving back, helping others is what we are here for. I think this is what we talked about, it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to make sure that our community is being well served. I think that’s kind of the things that I use as my guiding principle.

Stormy Bell (13:49): That’s awesome. Very cool. I think people don’t realize how much they can make an impact just for a simple gesture. It doesn’t have to be changing, you know, like, how am I gonna change the world? It’s like, no, just help the person, your neighbor. Exactly. Just go across the street and say, can I help you? You know, something simple. What it does is tenfold hundredfold of what you’re giving.

Shirley Fan-Chan (14:18): Exactly. You made a good point, Stormy. Like for example someone says, well my neighbor needs help because they’re aging, you’re helping one neighbor. Then you start to think about, oh, if I have one neighbor who needs help, maybe another aging neighbor in the neighborhood or down the street also needs help. How can I make sure this is happening in our community? Once you spread the word out, other people will just take it on. I think the idea is you start something then other people can scale to replicate that kind of work and the volunteer work.

Stormy Bell (14:56): Now I’m gonna ask you a blooper. Something that you did that didn’t turn out right or something you saw your leaders or your students do that didn’t turn out right, but they learned something from it.

Shirley Fan-Chan (15:13): It’s just so many [instances] that I can think about. It’s not about doing right. When you try to plan a project like this volume, I think we really learn on the go. Every year we have to be very organized and the first few years we didn’t have that kind of a learning experience. This is how we understand counting is so important. Why we actually assign adults as a counter is because for the beginning when we first asked the project, we didn’t realize that counting actually was so critical for us to make sure we have enough bags. We also need to divide the bags to each campus because we have six campuses that we need to deliver to and each campus should have the right number.

We didn’t do it very well back then. That’s the reason we now, learning what we learned from the beginning, we assign adults to be the counter. That makes such a big difference for the past few years from our packing experience, having two adults just responsible to count. [Another] adult would be doing quality control or troubleshooting, making sure the students have any questions. We found out that having an adult counter would just make our life so much easier in the whole project. That’s really what we learned during that time [that] I can think of.

Stormy Bell (16:47): Awesome. I totally appreciate that. Alright. We’re to the time in the show where I asked you to love on Students Assisting Students. Just love on it. Share why people should donate, why the student should get involved. Just love on it.

Shirley Fan-Chan (17:05): Why people want to donate. Think about a group of students who are out there on their own without parents, without families supporting them. We are the parents. When I say we are the parents, because we are the parents of this whole community, we’re the parents of the society. We’re we’re parents of every child in the community. If they are needing our support, why not? I think that’s how I ask other folks, especially a lot of my community volunteers they’re parents themselves and they can relate to it. Why [should] students want to get involved? Because it’s a great opportunity to open their eyes to understand what is the unfortunate, what is the underserved populations? What would they need? A lot of time our student didn’t understand. Well we talk about food insecurity, which means they don’t have meal on the table, not necessarily. They may not just have enough food to eat.

They have food, but they don’t have enough food to eat. That’s the difference, right? I think students using those opportunities to understand what are different issues, what are different populations the needs are and for them actually, I feel like we’re creating the social responsibility among the younger generations. I think for the students to get involved is really great for them to understand we’re responsible for our community, we’re responsible for our society. I think that’s one thing that I always engage students to say, learn about the world. This is the first step.

Stormy Bell (18:39): Absolutely.

Shirley Fan-Chan (18:40): Also the peer support peers is really important.

Stormy Bell (18:43): Yes. That opens their eyes and having that hands-on and getting to know someone at that age, it makes an impact for the rest of their lives. Volunteering, reaching out, or mentoring becomes a core value that stays with them from the time they’re 16 to the time they’re 96. It can exactly just become a guiding principle in their lives. That’s awesome. Now if my listeners wanna get to know more about Students Assisting Students, where would they go? How would they find you?

Shirley Fan-Chan (19:16): We have a website: We are based in Massachusetts and if anyone who is outside of Massachusetts wants to donate, we [are] in the process of creating a signup link on the website, so you can sign up by ordering whatever [is] on the list and ship it to the locations that we designated. We usually do donation drives twice a year, the beginning of the fall semester and the beginning of the spring semester.

Stormy Bell (19:50): Awesome. Very cool. Well, Shirley thank you for being on The Art of Volunteering. I really appreciated this conversation. I think it’s eye-opening for a lot of people because you just don’t think of college students as having food insecurity and it’s so much more prevalent than people realize. I want to thank you and I ask my listeners to join in next time. Till then, just look to impact your neighbor. Just find a way to go across the street and do something kind. You don’t know how much that will mean. Well, thank you and have a great day.

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Transcript: Benjamin Baham, Volunteer Firefighter and EMS Officer (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode 16: Benjamin Baham, Volunteer Firefighter and EMS Officer.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Welcome to The Art of Volunteering. I’m your host, Stormy Bell. Today we welcome Benjamin Baham from the Eighth Ward Volunteer Fire Department in the Tangipahoa Parish of Louisiana. He’s gonna correct me on how to say that and I’m totally okay with that. He’s a firefighter and an EMS officer. Ben, please introduce yourself, share a little bit about your journey and correct my pronunciation.

Benjamin Baham (00:29): Oh you’re fine. Hey, I’m Ben Baham. I’m a firefighter paramedic with Eighth Ward Volunteer Fire Department in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. Volunteer firefighting has been kinda like a family thing for me, so me and my wife actually get to do it together. We have a five-year-old who’s involved kind of with that other little second family. It’s really been a blessing for our family be to do that. My journey with volunteerism kind of started in high school. I went to EMT school at night when I was in high school. After I got out, I started working in the ER and I was thinking I wanted to go to nursing school and I wanted to actually use my EMS certification. My RTC instructor in high school was one of the training officers at a local volunteer fire department said, come on over. That’s kinda where I got started. There’s been a lot of connected stories and a lot of really good stuff that you know, meeting the right people, having the right mentors, that kind of guided me on my journey. Hopefully that’ll continue to go that direction and also be mentors to other people as well.

Stormy Bell (01:41): Awesome. Now, do you volunteer now or are you on staff?

Benjamin Baham (01:46): So I do both. I’m a career firefighter at Mandeville Fire/EMS. I’ve been a career firefighter for two years. Usually that’s kind of something you want to get in when you’re young, but apparently about two years ago I decided that I needed to start my career as a firefighter which has really been an amazing journey. The kind of thing that always pulled me away from doing the career firefighting is Louisiana and Mississippi are tied for 50th in firefighter pay. It’s really hard to make a decent living as a career firefighter in Louisiana, but I found a department that through certain programs allowed me the opportunity to be able to do what I wanted to do as a career and be able to use it to benefit me in the volunteer aspect.

Stormy Bell (02:40): That’s awesome. When we were getting ready for the podcast, you do a lot within your volunteering. Can you share a little bit about that? Like what you are involved with?

Benjamin Baham (02:56): Yeah! I really do do a lot. I would say if I was the master of something, it would be like the EMS stuff. I’ve always been very interested in all the medical aspects. I am the EMS officer at Eighth Ward Fire Department. I’ve previously been a captain. At one point I was one of the training chiefs. I’m a certification evaluator for the state Fire Academy. I do a lot of other instruction stuff. I’m a state EMS instructor. I also work part-time at the National EMS Academy. I’m not trying to brag on it, but there’s so much stuff that when you call 9-1-1, you’re expecting someone to come fix your problem, right? But there’s an infinite number of problems out there so firefighters have to be very adaptive and very well rounded.

Usually to have an effective firefighter you want to have someone who’s able to at least be helpful on everything, but usually people will try to pick one thing that, ‘hey, I wanna be the guy to go to if this is a problem’. So there is a lot to it, a lot of rescue certifications. Just the firefighter certification loan, the minimum firefighter certifications over 200 hours of training. I figured it up last year to meet the very minimum qualifications that most people have, and this is like the bare minimum low to be able to work and it should be the same qualifications to be a volunteer, it’s like 320 hours. There is a lot to it.

Stormy Bell (04:38): There is a lot to it. Again, when we were getting ready for the interview you were telling me about an initiative that you’re doing in the rural communities, bringing them up to like current standards. Can you explain that a little bit?

Benjamin Baham (04:53): Yeah, when I started at Eighth Ward, there were no firefighters that had any of the industry certifications for firefighting, hazmat. We had guys that had EMS certifications, but the state requires you to have an EMS certification before you’re able to obtain your license to be able to work in EMS, like to be able to provide any patient care, you have to be licensed. So we did have some guys that were at the emergency medical responder level and some guys are at the EMT level. All the firefighting stuff it’s left up to the authority having jurisdiction as to what the standards are. Most departments are the body, are the authority having jurisdictions to make those standards. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into bringing rural departments kind of up to where we would hope to be to be able to provide the services to the community that they deserve and also for us to be safe as well.

There’s a lot that goes into it. I can tell you if you’re ever looking just to donate money or monetary value if you give that to your local fire department, there is an opportunity to get a kind of some payback on that. That’s one of the only things that you can do to reduce your insurance is having a better fire department. How much you pay on your homeowner’s insurance or if you have a business, your business insurance, all that is gonna be based off of the rating for your fire department. A better rated fire department gets you lower cost. So that’s a big goal for us as well is to have a good rating. That should mean that we’re providing good services to our community but it’s also us doing our part to give back to them, not just when they have an emergency, but us giving back and doing our job and being better.

Stormy Bell (06:47): Do you find that your community’s embraced the work that you’re doing? Are they very supportive of you?

Benjamin Baham (06:55): Yeah. We are still kind of a rural community. We’re growing very fast. Our fire department, I think it was two years ago the state told us we were the fastest growing fire district in Louisiana, so our population’s exploding. Our demands are quickly increasing. I think when I started at Eighth Ward our call volume was around 400 calls a year and now we’re averaging over a thousand.

Stormy Bell (07:30): That is an increase.

Benjamin Baham (07:31): It’s picking up quite a bit. With all the other demands that you have on firefighters and maintaining their certifications and doing their training and everything else that’s required of ’em they also have to go on all these emergency calls. It can be quite taxing on all those guys to often be busy. So our department when I got on, was a completely volunteer department. There were no paid guys whatsoever. We’ve transitioned to what they call a combination department, which is where you have some guys who are paid and some volunteers. Ours is still very heavy on the volunteer. We have two paid guys that are on 24 hours a day and everybody else has to fill in cause two guys can’t cover every call or meet the needs of every call or, and if you have more than one call going on at the same time. So we’re very heavily reliant on our volunteers.

Stormy Bell (08:25): How do you recruit your volunteers?

Benjamin Baham (08:28): So actually my wife is head of the membership committee and she has a very strong role in the recruitment. We do have a couple things online, I think through the National Volunteer Fire Council. They have some options there for you to be able to find your local fire department but most of it is kinda word of mouth, finding the right people. For people to respond to emergencies, it does kind of take a certain mindset in a type of person to do it. Not everybody’s able to actually work in all those environments and be effective. A lot of it is word of mouth but if somebody just drives by and they say, you know what, I wanna go volunteer we do have a process of vetting them and initiating them. Then there’s a probationary period of either it works out or not.

Stormy Bell (09:21): So that kind of leads me into the article that I read because you’re published. I know you have at least two articles and the one that caught my attention is the T-shirt volunteer. First, I want you to explain what that means to our listeners, because maybe not everyone’s familiar with that term. Then share how your department make[s] sure that your firefighters are not T-shirt volunteer firefighters. Can you go into that a little bit?

Benjamin Baham (09:50): Sure. The term T-shirt firefighters is kind of an industry term for firefighters. We call those guys who come and they volunteer, they get a T-shirt, and you never see ’em again. Those are the T-shirt firefighters. Unfortunately a lot of people, when they read media, they read the headlines and that’s it. If you look at a lot of comments on the article, they didn’t read the article. They said, oh, I don’t care what they’re wearing, they’re coming to help. It definitely wasn’t a negative article for volunteers. I’ve been a volunteer for almost 15 years. The article was about us doing our part and really any of us can kind of fall into a T-shirt firefighter role anyway, if there’s something that we’re not doing our part in, right? As firefighters we do have to be well-rounded and everybody has their strengths, but we gotta be able to work everywhere. If we’re not working on our weaknesses and able to be effective in our weaknesses, then we can make something unsafe for someone else or maybe if it’s our turn to step up on some kind of emergency and we’re not able to do it, then our community’s missing out.

The big thing about the T-shirt firefighter article was where the process comes from. Have we actually created it as leadership not doing our part, allowing it to happen. That was the big thing of it. Some people may come in with a lot of enthusiasm and through the programs that that department has, they may end up becoming a T-shirt firefighter. They get comfortable in doing almost nothing. So our Eighth Ward Volunteer Fire Department is very heavily reliant on the volunteers and we have a complete training program to bring you up to our standards. If you want to, we’re gonna get you internationally certified.

Benjamin Baham (11:44): You have many departments out there that are the opposite. They’re not very [reliant] on their volunteers and mainly on their paid guys and unfortunately there’s a number of them that don’t develop our program for the volunteer. They just say you can become a volunteer, but then they don’t give them any direction to go once they get there. They’re just another pair of hands to use and that can be really ineffective especially when there’s such an opportunity. One of the biggest resources that we have as volunteer firefighters is people. Now you have a person coming out to be a volunteer but you’re not using them. You don’t actually get them to be a full effective member. They’re just another pair of hands and that can really be unsafe, but it also doesn’t help you in increasing your efficacy and actually giving better services to the community.

Stormy Bell (12:32): The community I grew up in had a completely 100% volunteer fire department so I’m familiar with that and the dedication that those volunteers had all hours of the day and night, someone who had to be available to go. I remember they had their lights in their vehicles when they’re going to the firehouse. Like you just, you moved over because they had something important to do.

Benjamin Baham (12:57): You would hope. You would be surprised at how often that doesn’t happen.

Stormy Bell (13:07): The hours that they undergo the training, are the volunteers trained to the same level as a career or are there differences? There’s like, there’s only so far a volunteer can go before they become career.

Benjamin Baham (13:21): So it depends on the state and it depends on the department. The standards for training should be the same because you’re providing the same service and the community has the same needs. When you’re graded, I said you know different departments are graded, right? And it could affect your insurance. So in Louisiana you’re actually graded by insurance companies. It’s a little bit of conflict in my opinion. You have the people that are grading you are the ones who are also that you have to pay, right? Everyone is graded the same. It’s on the amount of service that you’re able to provide. For firefighters the basic certifications is you do have to have a hazmat certification and then you’re able to go on your firefighter certification and all of the standards are gonna be the same for those, for the volunteer guys or the pay guys in Louisiana. They do have a couple other states where they have volunteer firefighter certifications but I’m not familiar with them. So Louisiana, they’re exactly the same and NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), they’re exactly the same. NFPA is gonna be one standard that everybody can look at and say, okay, this is a standard. That’s what it goes off of.

Stormy Bell (14:37): Okay. Pretty cool.

Benjamin Baham (14:39): You got guys that are doing this for free and they gotta do all the same training as the other guys that are getting paid to do it. It’s, like I said, over 300 hours to get started. That’s a commitment.

Stormy Bell (14:52): That is a commitment. Yeah. You’re just not like, oh, on a whim, I think I’m gonna go help with this. No you gotta really want to do it.

Benjamin Baham (15:03): Absolutely.

Stormy Bell (15:04): My question for you is, what motivates you to serve your community in such an intense way?

Benjamin Baham (15:12): I think there’s a lot. Growing up I did some volunteer with Boy Scouts, in church, and when I was in Junior ROTC in high school. I also didn’t grow up in a very wealthy family, so there was a lot of times when my family was the recipient of charity or volunteerism and things like that. I think I just got very fond of it once I started doing it and fell in love with it and said, you know what? This is something that I’m good at. I can give back to my community that’s in a deficit for these services and I wanna be able to provide it. It can be hard because it’s a second job. I’ve been in school for the last three years and I had two jobs, school, and trying to manage my responsibilities at a volunteer fire department so it can be a lot but having my wife is part of it [means] a lot. There’s a lot of times when she’s just kind of like, hey, we’re the team, you know, you and me against the world and we’re gonna go out there and do it. That’s kind of a beautiful thing, being able to merge that second family with your real family.

Stormy Bell (16:21): Your first family.

Benjamin Baham (16:22): Yeah absolutely. You know, my kid loves it up there. He’s all about being a firefighter, so I dunno if he is up with one or not but whatever he wants to do we’ll support him. He always says he wants to be a firefighter. I’m really happy with that. I really like being able to provide services to these people that they wouldn’t regularly get. Because if you call 9-1-1, somebody’s gotta come quick. You expect someone to show up and they’re gonna fix your problem so being able to build people up to be able to make that response is really important. I’ve really found a lot of enjoyment in being the instructor and being able to help people change and grow and develop into those effective emergency people who can come out there and solve those problems.

Stormy Bell (17:08): I like that. I like your motivation. Now your blooper.

Benjamin Baham (17:14): Now the blooper. Okay.

Stormy Bell (17:16): Now the blooper. Alright, please share a volunteering blooper and what you learned from it.

Benjamin Baham (17:23): Absolutely. The day before we were going on a cruise, we had a large structure fire. I actually believe I may have been the first one there so I was the incident commander for the call. My wife was shuttling water, which means she was taking a truck, going to get more water, and coming back because we didn’t have availability of a hydrant close by that we could connect to and use that for water. So at one point someone told her to go get more water and she didn’t realize that she wasn’t disconnected yet. The hose on her truck was connected to a truck that I was standing next to and that hose pinned me against that firetruck for a few seconds before the hoses decided to fail. We went on vacation with me limping on the first day with a swollen leg but it was good. That was our first cruise and it was fantastic. She’ll never live that down.

Stormy Bell (18:25): All right, so what’d you learn from that?

Benjamin Baham (18:27): What did I learn from that? Oh! Don’t stand between a hose and a firetruck I guess. That’s a pretty rare thing for that specific occasion to happen but absolutely. Absolutely.

Stormy Bell (18:40): Alright, here comes the part of the interview I want you to love on the Eighth Ward Volunteer Fire Department. Just love on them.

Benjamin Baham (18:48): Absolutely. Look, we got a lot of great guys. There’s dedication from both our volunteers and from all of our paid guys. Okay. I know a lot of times people will say, Hey look, I’m gonna show up at the fire department and somebody’s sitting up on a couch. Well, you know what? He might have been up all night long. He literally might have been up for 24 hours before you saw him sitting on the couch. It can be a lot. We have an extremely dedicated chaplain. It’s the only one I’ve seen in the region like this. So if we have any very bad calls he wants to contact that family. He wants to do his part that he can. If we have any issues with emergency responders, he wants to do his part on that. He’s developing a regional team to help with the stress of emergency services.

That’s a very unique thing that he’s doing. Really great guy. If we had more of that, this industry would be all the better. All the officers except for the fire chief are all volunteer. We have two assistant chiefs that are, heck, it’s like a second full-time job for those guys. Not even a second part-time job and you know one of them already working full-time, so he’s got two full-time jobs, right? All the captains are a volunteer position. We have some dedicated guys who were just starting and we have other guys who’ve been there for, for 20 years.

Benjamin Baham (20:23): With our community growing, I do feel like it’s kind of hard to keep that close-knit community like we used to have when you had people who’ve been living in the same area as families for like a century, right? Now you got people that are moving in that are new. I think one of our struggles is connecting with all the new people that are coming in and just letting them know, hey, this is who we are. They can know about us before they have to call 9-1-1. We got a really great group of guys over there, very dedicated. It’s a big sacrifice, but it can often be worth it. Absolutely.

Stormy Bell (21:05): Well, I’m glad that you do what you do. I’m glad the fire department that I grew up with did what they did. 

Benjamin Baham (21:12): Unfortunately usually when the fire department’s showing up it’s a bad day or maybe someone’s worse day, but you have some very beautiful people out there who are struggling to respond it out and to make that day even this much better. Sometimes it can be monotonous and it can be hard like when you’re getting up at three o’clock in the morning again to go to the same house for someone who just has fallen and needs help getting up, but that person doesn’t have another option. It’s an emergency to them because they can’t get up. You know, what would you do if you were stuck on the ground, right? You want somebody to come help [you]. Then you’d catch people on really, really bad days. You know, loss of a family member or something like that and it can take its toll on you, but there’s very often a lot of rewards that come with it.

Stormy Bell (22:11): So you see it all. You see the good, the bad and the ugly.

Benjamin Baham (22:14): Yep. Good, bad and the ugly absolutely. Unfortunately sometimes that good and bad can take its toll for a while but whenever you see that good, it’s such a unique experience. I’ll say this, most emergency responders will often not recognize how much of an impact that they have on other people. For example, that person who’s fallen, I just need help getting up. Right? You may never understand how appreciative they’re that someone was able to come pick them up.

Stormy Bell (22:46): Well, thank you for being our guest today on The Art of Volunteering. I truly appreciate this time having a glimpse into what volunteer firefighters and EMS officers and all the other hands that support the community, what they do. It’s more than what I probably put thought into growing up to what the families who were the volunteer firefighters in my home community. So thank you for that.

Benjamin Baham (23:12): Absolutely.

Stormy Bell (23:13): I will see you next time on The Art of Volunteering. Have a great day.

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Eighth Ward Volunteer Fire Department –
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Transcript: Dr. Kathleen O’Connor, Volunteering for Higher Education (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode 15: Dr. Kathleen O’Connor, Volunteering for Higher Education.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Welcome to The Art of Volunteering today. We’re gonna continue our discussion about community service and volunteering for high school and then today we’re gonna talk about it from the college perspective. My guest today is someone I’ve known for quite some time. She’s Dr. Kathleen O’Connor she’s the former Vice President of Enrollment Management for Lasell University. I’ll let her tell you all the things she’s been involved with, but she understands students and what their experience is in college or university. Dr. O’Connors, would you introduce yourself.

Dr. Kathleen O’Connor (00:40): I will. Please forgive me, I have a four month old puppy at my feet, so that’s my latest journey in life. As Stormy said I’m Kathleen O’Connor, Kate to my friends and I have worked in higher education for over 40 years. I’ve been a Director of Financial Aid. I’ve been a Dean of Students. I have been a Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. I have been the Chief Student Affairs Officer. I have been the Chief Development Officer. I’ve overseen marketing communications, admissions, graduate admissions, athletics, institutional research, and I’m sure the registrar’s office. I’ve had a wonderful journey with a lot of opportunities and one thing I would say for anyone, whether you’re volunteering or you’re working, somebody gives you an opportunity just say yes. Just say yes.

Stormy Bell (01:41): As I mentioned today, our discussion is about community service and volunteering that prospective students put on their applications. I wanna know what does the college look for when they’re redoing applications and they look at community service, volunteering, anything in that realm? Why is it valued in the admissions process?

Dr. Kathleen O’Connor (02:04): There’s a number of reasons why it’s valued when you’re looking at it. If you’re reading a student’s application for college, what you’re looking at is does the student have 40 things listed and did they really do those 40 things? Were they engaged in those 40 things or were these one offs just so they could fill up that piece of paper? You’re looking for the type of experience the student had and what was the length of that experience? How much commitment did they make to that? Because that’s part of what you’re looking for. It’s not just the service aspect, but what did the student do? How did they engage? How did they commit? What level of responsibility did they accept in that organization? That says a lot about what kind of student they’re going to be when they enroll at your university.

I did a TV program with the Dean of Admissions from Wellesley [College] one year. We’re all looking for students who are going to make our community a better place. So you’re looking for students who demonstrate through their application for admission, the kinds of things that you think will bring energy, bring engagement, bring life, and bring good things to your community. Different things, but good things. It’s about building a community. Going to college, you don’t want just disparate individuals. You wanna build a team. You wanna build a community and somebody who has done service generally has worked on some type of a team. Sometimes a volunteer is a solitary opportunity, but generally working as part of a team is part of a service project. What you find is that students who have done service have taken the opportunity to expose themselves to people that are different from themselves.

Dr. Kathleen O’Connor (03:54): The beauty of service is that you can do it in any area that interests you. I happen to love being outdoors. I did a five mile hike at the [Cape Cod] National Seashore today and we saw whales. You can go out and clear trails. You can go and rescue turtles. You can do wonderful things outdoors. If you’re not somebody who likes to be outdoors, you’re more of an intellectually based book person, you can mentor younger students, you can volunteer in the library. There are all kinds of things you can do that help you express who you are as a person. In expressing that you’re going to learn something you didn’t know. One of the wonderful things you hope people are also gonna learn is humility.

How fortunate am I. I’m working with elderly or I’m working with underserved communities, or I’m helping to build a playground for students with different abilities. I may learn something about myself. I may learn that I am an incredibly fortunate human being to have the ability to do this. That’s an important thing that can be learned through service. It exposes you to things you might not ordinarily see. I mean at Lasell we had students, golly, a group of students took one of our vans and went down and they were fixing roofs in Appalachia. I guarantee you that the young women who were on that van didn’t know a darn thing about how to fix a roof until they got down there and someone showed them how to do it.

Dr. Kathleen O’Connor (05:43): The good thing is no one fell off that roof, but it is an opportunity for you to learn something new. We actually had one of the college carpenters come and give a workshop on how to use a hammer. Boy, if you become a homeowner, that’s a good thing to have learned. You learn different skills in what you’re doing. I walk in the woods a lot and you’ll see Eagle Scout projects. The Boy Scouts have all these Eagle Scout projects where they build bridges across marches and things like that. Someone had to learn that. So as a person looking at an application for admission, I’m looking to see how much responsibility did this person take? How did they choose to express their own talents? What might they have learned through that volunteer or service opportunity? Those are the kinds of things I’m looking for.

Did they take a leadership role that they don’t necessarily have to? We’re not all born in that role, but where were there opportunities for them to do that? I would say, I’m not reading applications now, but hopefully we’ve come through two years of a pandemic. I think some of the students who are going to be applying to colleges now would benefit from volunteer workforce service because it’s gonna help socialize them. They’ve been doing this kind of work for a couple of years now, how do I begin to relate back to people? I know as a former student, my own volunteer work and my own student work in college helped me a great deal when it came time for me to actually go into quote the real world and work. What had I already learned? What had I learned about chain of command? What had I learned about management? What had I learned in that space? If these students have not had the opportunity, then volunteerism or service is a huge opportunity right now for them to get out and start to look at the world. The world’s a very different place than it was two years ago so I think it becomes even more important now.

Stormy Bell (07:51): Oh, that’s awesome. Just in my life, the volunteering that I did and how it affects me now, especially my passion for volunteering, it’s kind of built over the years as to why I see it being so important and why I’ve encouraged my sons to do volunteering even when they didn’t think that they needed to but they did. If you’re not volunteering but just involved in campus activities, do you get the same type of experience or do you think volunteering is a little bit more beneficial?

Dr. Kathleen O’Connor (08:38): It’s different. I’m gonna come back to that question in a minute. When you said even when your boys didn’t think they needed to. I taught a course when we created the honors program at college and the first year course for first year students was on community. Recognizing that you are a member of a community. Different communities and for students, you might be a member of your class, which is a community. You might be members of your floor in a residence hall, which is a community. You might be members of a particular major, which is a community you’re part of a family, which is a community. If you look at community, it’s a social contract. You have a responsibility to put into that community, because at some point you’re going to ask for something back from that community.

You need to understand that being a community member and different vectors of it. You’ll be a part of a community of multiple communities. In our heads, we may not think we need to, but as a member of a community, we have a responsibility to engage in that community and so it becomes an interesting space. I always look at it as a social contract. That’s just an aside, but you asked about clubs and organizations and activities as opposed to service or volunteering. It’s different. My niece when she was looking at colleges, she’s a lacrosse player, and she said I wanna go to a school where the students don’t look like me. She said, because I will be part of a team. I will already have a built in group of people that I have friends so I need to widen that. I wanna be able to meet people who differ from me. Whether they differ from me ideologically from a religious perspective, intellectually, whatever it is, it enriches you to meet other people.

Dr. Kathleen O’Connor (10:48): When you’re part of not all, but when you’re part of a team or a club, generally you’re with like people. If that makes sense. If you’re part of a glee club, then you’re with a group of people who like to sing, probably if it’s a high school activity that probably all your classmates. The exposure there would be if your glee club went out and sang at a home for the elderly or something like that. Clubs and organizations are wonderful don’t get me wrong. They build dripping skills as well. You learn organization, you learn responsibility. You can take on leadership roles. They’re terrific. We look for those on an application, too. Service is different. It exposes you to a group that is not like you, which of these is not like the other you, you meet a different group of people and hopefully you learn from them. Does that answer you?

Stormy Bell (11:49): That does answer me very much so.Now I’m gonna give you an opportunity to love on Lasell since you spent most of your career there and why students should value the lessons learned through volunteering. Why they should value them?

Dr. Kathleen O’Connor (12:11): Well, I think they should value them because it, they, it adds dimensions to your life. I’m very fortunate that when I was at Lael, in some of my early years, there was a woman named Kerry Heffernan who became Dr. Kerry Heffernan and Kerry started a program called Women in Public Service. She thought that was very important. She’s the one who took that first group of students down to Appalachia. She had buses and bands running into the city to mentor kids, to teach math in inner city schools to younger children. We got a call, Carrie came into my office and said I need one of the vans and I said, sure, what are we doing? The reindeer over at this preserve have gotten loose and we have to go round up the reindeer. I was like, okay, you’ll go round up reindeer.

You could do things in your wildest dreams. You wouldn’t think you were gonna be doing. I think that that’s a huge opportunity. I am a product of a small school. I worked with three different small schools. I look at schools like Lasell as opportunities to expose you to those kinds of things. To exactly what we were just talking about to meet people that you wouldn’t ordinarily meet who give you those opportunities. I think that a school like Lasell has a huge opportunity to foster students and to help them find what’s interesting to them. It’s not just about, you know, do this. It’s what do you want to do and then how can I help you do that?

Dr. Kathleen O’Connor (14:05): How can I get the obstacles out of the way for you to engage in something? A student could come in and say I’m interested in doing some service, I just don’t know what. That’s where we were talking earlier about. Well what’s a personal interest of yours? You know, you love dogs, okay, there’s a shelter. Maybe they need dog walkers and shelters generally don’t have a lot of money. I love being in the woods. Okay, well, they need somebody who’s gonna manicure the trail so that we can do that. I love my grandparents. I love working with older people. Well you know what, there’s a senior center down the road where they might need people. As we age the eyes start to go, they might need people to read for them or those kinds of things.

There’s huge opportunities and I think a place like Lasell and some of the other smallest schools I worked at, there’s an intimacy, if you will, where you get to build a relationship with the members of the faculty and staff who will be mentors for you. Who will help you discover yourself. They’re not gonna do it for you. They’re just gonna try and send you on the right path. I believe if you look at Lasell, one of the things that was important to us was service, is service. We committed a significant portion of our university budget to funding the Center for Service and making sure that our students had access to those opportunities because not all education happens in the classroom. There’s a tremendous amount that occurs outside the classroom. A place like Lasell tries to foster that in students.

Stormy Bell (15:50): I have a question for you. I want you to know your blooper.

Dr. Kathleen O’Connor (15:55): My blooper?

Stormy Bell (15:58): Yeah! Tell me of a blooper and then what you learned from it.

Dr. Kathleen O’Connor (16:00): I thought about that. I don’t know if it qualifies for a blooper, but it’s very difficult to manage volunteers. It’s, you know, the old proverbial herding cats. There are folks who come into it with, I wanna make a difference. I really wanna do this, and they don’t know what they need to do. They may not have the skillset. You can teach people certain things, but they may not have the right skillset for what it is they’re choosing to do. It’s very hard to fire a volunteer. 

Stormy Bell (16:42): That’s true.

Dr. Kathleen O’Connor (16:44): Well it is. As we started this conversation, we were talking about, what do we look for on the college application? I said is it a one off or did the student engage in this process? You can have people who are like, oh, yes, I volunteered to do that and you’re like, okay, I need you Tuesday and Thursday at three o’clock. Tuesday comes and it’s quarter to four. Oh, well, I had something come up. Well you have to take this seriously. Thursday comes and it’s quarter past four. How do you fire somebody you’re not paying? It’s not easy. Perhaps this isn’t what interests you as much as you think it is. Perhaps we should find something that is more interesting to you. So it’s not really a blooper, but I think back over my career, and I won’t tell you who I fired, but there’s a fine art to firing someone and having them think that they quit and that this was a really good thing for them.

Stormy Bell (17:55): Thank you for that. That’s a lesson learned. Well I wanna thank you and I’m thankful that I get to call you Kate. Thank you today for coming on The Art of Volunteering. I just wanna encourage our listeners to get involved. Volunteering is about community. I’ve learned that through several of the interviews that I’ve been having over the course of this year, and you get so much more out of it than what you put into it. Alright thank you and we’ll see you next time! 

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Transcript: Troy Childress, High School Guidance Counselor (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode 14: Troy Childress, High School Guidance Counselor.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Hello, my friends. Welcome to another episode of The Art of Volunteering. Today, I have a friend that I’ve known [for] about 18, 19 years. As a longtime friend of ours, he mentored my children when they were in youth programming at our church, and he’s just a wonderful resource. This is Troy Childress. He is currently a school counselor at GREEN Upstate High School. That’s in North Carolina?

Troy Childress (00:30): South Carolina.

Stormy Bell (00:31): South Carolina! Oh, I didn’t write that down.

Troy Childress (00:34): That’s okay! It’s one of the Carolinas, you’re close enough.

Stormy Bell (00:36): Oh, close enough! A little bit about Troy. After serving the Air Force, he began his career in youth ministries where he spent over 20 years, both in paid and volunteering. From there, his calling continued into education and he now serves the students and their families as a school counselor. Welcome Troy, and thank you for being my guest.

Troy Childress (00:58): My pleasure. My pleasure.

Stormy Bell (01:01): Today we’re having a discussion about community service and volunteering and why it is so important to high school students as they’re looking for their post-secondary education. Whether it’s university, a two year college, or even trade schools, they look at what are they doing with their time and how are they spending it? There’s a lot of emphasis put on it, and I’ll ask you a little bit about that, but can you just share from your experience, why is this so important?

Troy Childress (01:35): I think from my experience, from the military all the way into youth ministry, even now an education it’s always been an opportunity to give back. From a young airman in the Air Force, we were always encouraged to get in the community. From the Air Force, they use it almost like a recruitment technique or whatever it is where you’re out there in your schools. I was a firefighter, so we had our firefighting programs that we did with in the school. We went around with the students. We talked about fire prevention. So when we’re in uniform and we’re out there meeting and interacting with the community, they saw us in a different light, I guess you could say, than just being a normal military guy. We were able to interact on a personal level. From the military side of things, that was our interaction just to- of giving back. 

In the church world, you said this earlier, churches wouldn’t survive without volunteers. From my experience, I was even volunteering when I was in the military or going back doing church camps. You know, taking a week of vacation just to do a week of camp with students. For me, that part was just to fulfill my passion of working with students. I enjoyed it. I get into paid ministry now, and I even volunteered when I was in youth ministry with FCA. Fellowship for Christian Athletes. Not paid to do that. I did that outside of church world and then, as you know, I found a way to infuse both of ’em at times.

Troy Childress (03:09): I think from volunteering from me as an adult it’s, we have our job. We have our nine to five if you will. Seven to three, or sometimes we work 12 hour shifts. There’s more to life than just the day in, day out grind. If I can give back from a personal perspective and help someone else in need, most of the times we’re volunteering whether it’s at a soup kitchen or whether it’s at a camp or things like that. There are people that need to fill those roles, and a lot of those organizations rely on the volunteering side of things. That’s for me, giving back to the community if you will. There’s the, it’s not selfish, but it’s always unique with how you feel. So you get a sense of gratification and satisfaction of knowing that I helped others. 

There’s a lot of gratitude that people show. I used to work at Soup Kitchen, we would volunteer. We take the kids a lot of times to different places like that, and people just are thankful for people that want to help others. It feels good. It feels good to know that people recognize that and appreciate that. You know, even on the youth side of things when I volunteered as an adult before I became paid staff, those relationships that you build it with students and you get to walk with them in their lives you do that over a course of years. You develop those relationships. I have friends on Facebook that were students that I volunteered with as well as the paid staff kind of thing. You walk with them in life. So there’s a lot of that sense of satisfaction from that personal side of things. 

Troy Childress (04:48): Now as a school counselor and I’m talking to students about their need to get involved, I don’t always spend as much on the college application side of things. I try to hit them on the personal side first. Yeah, we’re doing a college application and they wanna see your hours that you’re volunteering, but I try to reel them in a little bit on that personal piece. Go volunteer at a soup kitchen. That’s the easy one. We use that always as a reference, just because there’s always that. You got your Thanksgiving timeframe, you’ve got your Christmas timeframe, you got some other times of the year where they need volunteers. It’s an easy one to go on a Saturday. 

There are a lot of other avenues that we give them as far as volunteering, Boys & Girls Club, things like that. I try to hit home on that personal level of once they start doing it, they start feeling better about it, they enjoy it, and they get that sense of satisfaction. I feel like if I just dangled a carrot of, ‘hey, you need this for a college application’, a student’s gonna go, they’re gonna do the hour here or there, and they’re gonna check the box and move on not really have the right heart or mindset when they’re volunteering. The win-win for a lot of our students is colleges like to see that. They wanna see that you’re volunteering. It hits on a different level, which I’ll talk about in a second. If I can dangle the carrot of the personal sense of satisfaction and gratification you’re gonna get as well as you’re gonna do that, and you’re gonna meet something that colleges wanna see, it’s a win-win for the students as far as that’s concerned.

Stormy Bell (06:28): Okay. I like that. You’ve answered a lot of my questions in that.

Troy Childress (06:36): Sorry, I went ahead on that one.

Stormy Bell (06:37): No, that’s really good. I love it. Students are in high school so they have school work, they have extracurricular activities, they might have a job. Volunteering plays into that. How do you work with students to balance all that and find a happy medium? Because we don’t want them stressed out and like, I have to do this. I would think from a college point of view, they want a well-rounded student. So how do you guide them? How do you talk to that?

Troy Childress (07:11): Well, I had a freshman come in my office today and it was pretty interesting. She sent me an email saying, ‘hey, can you meet about my credits?’ I pulled her up. I had known her name and face. This is my first year at GREEN so I’m still getting to know my students, but I realized that she’s a freshman and I was intrigued by this conversation. A freshman coming in, already concerned about credits. It was a really good conversation because we got to talk a little bit more about credits. She was asking about colleges and talking about the holistic approach that colleges are looking at while volunteering came up. A lot of our clubs, like National Honors Society, Beta Club, they have volunteering as a requirement for their club. The idea again is, okay, so we’re gonna be a part of a club where our club is service oriented so we need to be serving within the community as part of being a part of this club. 

We got to talk a little bit about that. She’s very smart. Not to say that kids who volunteer have to be smart, but she already got a 4.0 GPA as a freshman. Because she started taking classes at seventh grade. That’s unweighted as opposed to weighted. She’s a really bright student talking about AP classes this year and those kind of things. So she was doing the checkbox. Okay, well I know I need to do this. I know I need to do this. I know I need to do this. Volunteering was one of the things that she added to it. She started talking about getting a job and working 8 to 10 hours a week next year because she’ll be 15. 

Troy Childresss (08:33): As she started listing off these things- in fact when she was talking, she didn’t even breathe. She was kind of like, I’m talking, talking, talking, talking, talking, talking, talking. Then, oh, and then she finally got her breath and I said, ‘that’s a lot, isn’t it?’ She smiled and she says, ‘yeah, it is!’ I said, ‘so let’s take a step back for a second. Stop checking the box and let’s look at things that we’re passionate about because you can become overwhelmed.’ I even asked her, ‘what’s the priority on those, on this schedule?’ She took a second to think about it and she kind of, ‘oh, my grades!’

I said ‘exactly’. I said, ‘so we can put a lot on our plate but we need to make sure that school comes first and we find a way to balance all that.’ I know we put so much pressure, or students, or someone in the mix is putting pressure on students to stack the box on all the things that they’re doing. Take all the APs you can take, take all the honors classes you can take, get a part-time job, play sports, be involved in extracurricular activities, [and] volunteer. Oh maybe you can help out around the neighborhood! We just start checking all these things and students become overwhelmed. I have them step back and look at, so what are we passionate about?

Troy Childress (09:58): Don’t do things just to check the box and say well, I was a part of this club or I did that. Granted here again, we’re looking at the holistic side of things, but if a college, and this is just from my interaction with admissions reps and those kind of things. If you’re involved with one or two clubs, you have extracurricular activities and you’re volunteering on this and they all kind of fit your passion and what your, your interest is, that’s far more impactful in your college application than having 20,000 things that you’re doing and your list is so long, but it’s an hour here, 30 minutes there. As opposed to, I volunteer at Boys & Girls Club because I wanna be a teacher and I’m passionate about working with students. So I spend five hours a week volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club. 

Just having them prioritize those things so that they don’t become overwhelmed. Because it’s very easy to do that. There’s some students who need to work and I’ve had a lot of reps talk about [how] they can’t always get the volunteer hours in because they need to work and they understand that part of it, and that’s a priority as well. But still trying to find a way to get involved and interact. If they can only volunteer one hour a week, one hour every two weeks, but it’s intentional in what they’re doing, that stands out far more than anything else. That’s based off of just the conversations we’ve had with reps and students and just making sure that they understand the why in what they’re doing.

Stormy Bell (11:31): I like that. I wish I had that guidance when I was in school.

Troy Childress (11:36): You and me both. You and me both.

Stormy Bell (11:40): Do you see the students who decide to be with the Boys and Girls Club, because they wanna be a teacher and they’re aligning their time so everything’s aligning up with their passions and their direction in life. Do you see the benefits of that beyond high school, beyond college? Do you think they take something from that, that carries with them? That spirit of giving back, like continuing that? Do you see that?

Troy Childress (12:08): I do, and I’ll use myself as an example. In high school we had an opportunity with church camp. As a high school student, I could go back and volunteer for the younger age groups at camp, or even in church you could volunteer in children’s church or those kind of things. Even at Pascack Bible Church (PBC), we had a lot of our students who went to camp as a volunteer of the weeks that they had younger kids. That’s what started my whole journey into what I’m doing now as far as working with students. I didn’t realize that. At 16 years old, for me, it was a fun week at camp working with students. I enjoyed it. I had friends that went to camp with me. It was fun to me and I enjoyed that whole time that I was doing that.

I did it at, you know, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21. I’m still in the military going back and here I am, you know, three or four years later now stepping into a paid role as a youth pastor because of that journey that I took as a teenager working with students. For a lot of kids who don’t know what they wanna do, they don’t, I mean, and at 16, 17, 18, at 25 a lot of people still don’t know what they want to do so if they’re volunteering it gives them that touch point of is this something I’m passionate about or not? Many people tend to move forward with that and do it for years to come because they enjoy it. That doesn’t mean that if someone volunteers with the Boys and Girls Club that they’re gonna work with children the rest of their life, but they might continue as an adult volunteering because of that passion and what they’ve enjoyed doing and that drives their giving side of things, if you will.

Stormy Bell (14:00): Ok. Just speaking, like not knowing what they wanna do and volunteering for that, that is one one thing they recommend for volunteers, even someone wanting to change jobs later on in life or if some of our young professionals want to build their resume. They will look for volunteer opportunities in like, they might be in finance, but they need to have fundraising experience. The actual earning of it. They volunteer so they gain that real world experience that helps them for that next step in their career whatever that is. I hear people who may have lost their job during the pandemic. They found ways to volunteer to keep their skills up, to give them purpose. There’s so many things that come out of it. To instill that at a high school or even middle high age, it’s so important. If you actually have even younger than that, families who you use the example of the soup kitchen, they go as a family. They’re learning at a very young age that we give back. We do this just because that’s who we are. It’s such an example for the future. 

I do see what you were saying about aligning in their passions that colleges want- They’re looking at that volunteering possibly from a point of what value is this student? What are they gonna bring to the life of the campus? How do they look at the world? How do they get involved? We don’t necessarily want someone who’s so worn out because they’ve done everything. We’d rather have someone a little more focused, a little more open to even diversity, trying different things. If you volunteered with the Paralympics or something like that where you’ve opened yourself up to something beyond what you might see at home or even in your school.

Troy Childress (16:08): Right, right. So I’ll even use your two boys as an example. I mean, they’re both in careers now that they were volunteering in some of those aspects in high school. I mean I know Zander was helping out in youth ministry with a lot of our media stuff and look at what they’re doing. Those doors open up far beyond where we think they’re gonna open up as far as that’s concerned, which is really neat to see.

Stormy Bell (16:37): Absolutely. Absolutely. Alright, let me ask you hopefully an easy question. Can you share a story of an impactful volunteer experience? Something maybe you had as a volunteer or something you witnessed from one of your students during their experience? Has anything come to mind?

Troy Childress (17:01): Yes. We took a group to Cincinnati many years ago from New Jersey. It was a mix of a conference as well as a mission trip, if you will. We were going within the local community and doing different things. Part of it was the Boys & Girls Club. We were there hanging out with kids and doing a bible study with them and just spending time with them. Playing games and those kind of things. We had I think three or four groups. We had different tasks that we did throughout the week. The students would either be at the Boys & Girls Club or they would be doing some work. Doing some construction stuff or doing some food stuff at the food pantry so they kind of rotated around.

You would think that just the volunteering with the kids would be the most impactful one. Some of the students surprised me. ‘Man, I had fun working with my hands and getting dirty and building the fence and doing those kind of things’. I think it was the food bank that we were working at. From that side of it, the kids talked about giving bags of food to people who were in need. At the end of that week, we talk about how the week was, and I get the students to kind of share back. There was not one student that week that didn’t have anything impactful to say.

Troy Childress (18:41): I remember this trip very, very distinctly because it was my first trip after Russell was born so I was not in the right, right state of mind. In fact, I was kind of a little disconnected. We get to the end of the week and everybody’s teary eyed, everybody, you know is just, they were touched by what we did that week. Those students all stepped out of their comfort zone and learned how important it’s to step out of the normal life that we live and give back a little bit. So that’s one of the ones, I see pictures sometimes on Facebook. It just kind of sparks a little piece of my heart of reminding me of that trip, which is really cool.

Stormy Bell (19:27): That’s awesome. Was that the trip that had potatoes? Something they had to- was there a trip that they pick potatoes or sorted potatoes or something? Was that that one?

Troy Childress (19:37): Maybe.

Stormy Bell (19:38): Maybe? I heard stories about something like that. I could be on the wrong trip.

Troy Childress (19:43): No I think that was it.

Stormy Bell (19:47): Very good. Alright. I have another question for you. Can you share a blooper, something that didn’t go right, but either you learned from it or the student learned from it? Just from a volunteer experience, like, just anything.

Troy Childress (20:04): So I’m gonna use myself as an example on this one. The other one was about the kids. This one was about me. Moved down to South Carolina and years in youth ministry I decide okay, I’m gonna jump back in and volunteer at a church. We go on a weekend retreat and here I am, Mr. Youth Pastor, you know, I got years of experience and I’m great and I know what I’m doing. It was the most humbling experience for myself where I was the outcast. Adults didn’t speak to me, students didn’t speak to me. I mean, I was the new guy. It was disheartening at times, but very discouraging as well. I think for me it was a huge learning experience. In fact, I called up an old buddy of mine from PBC, I’m not gonna name his name, but just to say, ‘hey, was I ever like this?’ You know, just cause I’ve always been intentional, especially with volunteers about making sure they get engaged and here I am the first time in a while where I’m the volunteer in youth ministry as opposed to the youth pastor.

There was no engagement, there was no interaction, there was no trying to help out as far as being the new guy. For me, while on one hand it was a blow to my ego of like, oh my gosh I’m not cool anymore. I mean, I kind of thinking about like, gosh, I’m the old guy or whatever. I mean, I wasn’t the oldest guy there, but that’s fine. I’m not bitter about that, I promise you. I think it was the learning experience for me, of just reminding me of how intentional we need to be. If I’m in a role where I have volunteers in or new people coming in or those kind of things, a reminder of make sure they’re engaged. Make sure if you’re the leader of leading this, whatever the group is or whatever is happening, make sure that everybody feels accepted, feels like they’re part of that group.

Troy Childress (22:21): It took a couple of nights of me nurturing my ego to kind of step back and learn from that experience. There are gonna be times where, and even now, times where I’m bringing people into the fold of, of doing different events. Just making sure that everybody, everybody feels wanted, feels like they’re needed and they’re a part of the group. Everybody has a role. Everybody has a role within whatever we’re doing in the volunteer side of things or, you know, in the organization. Just making sure that everybody feels heard and that they’re a part of it. That was a big learning curve for me but I’m better now because of it, because I think I have a newer sense of understanding of what it’s like to be on the other side.

Stormy Bell (23:10): Thank you for sharing that. That’s very personal. I appreciate that.

Troy Childress (23:14): It’s tough.

Stormy Bell (23:16): I know my listeners are gonna appreciate that too, because sometimes we learn more from our bloopers than we do when things go right.

Troy Childress (23:25): I appreciate the blooper side of things. Because sometimes we say failures and people they lock into that negative mindset but I’ve learned more from the mistakes I’ve made or the times that things didn’t go the way that I thought they were gonna go. This was one of those big examples of, it didn’t go the way I thought it was gonna go and I came back I think more impactful for me on that side of it than had it gone where I was a new guy and everybody loved me. I don’t think I would’ve learned as much.

Stormy Bell (23:56): I gotcha. Well, again thank you for sharing that. Okay here’s the part of the interview where I invite you to love on your school GREEN Upstate or your volunteering at your church, or just your students and their volunteer path. Just love on them.

Troy Childress (24:19): Cool. GREEN Upstate is a charter school in Mauldin, at Simpsonville Mauldin area. Our area code is Simpsonville but we live in Mauldin, which is the upstate of South Carolina. The Greenville area for those that aren’t familiar with South Carolina, but it’s the upstate side of things. The school had a middle school and a high school and they were combined together in the same building and we split off. So we are a new school in the sense of we’re our own school now. We’ve added more students in than we had before. We’re very small, just under 260 students. Which is new for me because the former school I worked at my caseload was 330 as a school counselor. Now the entire school is lower than my caseload before. It’s a small school.

Stepping into this school, it’s been some growing pains, but at the same time it’s really cool to see our students come together. I’m the new counselor. I have seniors that were working through transcripts and college applications and those kind of things. The majority of the students have been very receptive. There’s some cool energy from the school about the excitement of where we’re going. I’m excited about a lot of new things.

Troy Childress (25:56): From the school side of things, I think our journey is just beginning, but the future is very bright on that end of it. We’ve got some amazing teachers, staff members that are excited about something new. You know, you jump on something new, the energy could be one way or the other. It could just be defeated. But, when you’re on something new and everybody’s excited from the staff down I think that just kind of encourages the entire organization as a whole. I’m really pumped about that. I’ve got 35 seniors this year. I have 55 juniors, so our classes are kind of building from there. We’re 130 freshmen, I think right around there. 125. The future is headed in the right direction so I’m excited about that. I think everybody else is excited. I’m gonna say excited about three or four more times, and maybe I’ll get the point across with that.

Stormy Bell (26:55): Okay. That’s fine. Wonderful. Alright. Thank you so much for coming on today. I appreciate your wisdom. I love the perspective, especially about the students needing to find out what aligns with their passions and their goals as opposed to just doing everything. That’s my takeaway from this is just to be mindful of it. For the parents listening, don’t push your kids into everything. Help them choose.

Troy Childress (27:24): Absolutely.

Stormy Bell (27:25): Choose what matters most to them. Alright, Troy thank you. Maybe there’ll be another time. I’ll have you on talk about something else

Troy Childress (27:34): Anytime you want, I’m happy. Yes thank you Stormy.

Stormy Bell (27:35): Alright. Alright. Thank you to all my listeners. We’ll be back with another episode. Thank you.

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Transcript: Sue Griffin, Polio New Zealand (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode 13: Sue Griffin, Polio New Zealand.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Welcome back to another episode of The Art of Volunteering. Today we’re going completely around the world. We’re gonna go to New Zealand. My new friend, Sue Griffin is gonna be talking about how she volunteers and how she wants to turn the world purple on October 24th. Sue, welcome.

Sue Griffin (00:21): Kia ora.

Stormy Bell (00:24): Very cool. We have another new friend to me, Sue Devoli, and she said when we got talking to say purple gin and that just opened up everything when she said that.

Sue Griffin (00:41): Yes. Purple gin. Purple gin is my project for the year for World Polio Day which is October 24th.

Stormy Bell (00:55): What do you do with purple gin? You want everyone to drink gin that’s purple?

Sue Griffin (01:00): Well, that’d be good. No, the idea is the whole world remembers polio on October 24th every year. Cities all around the world, light up either an iconic structure of a sculpture or a building in purple. Buildings like the Burj Khalifa, The White House and Sydney Opera House. Unfortunately Aotearoa, or New Zealand, has been rather slack in doing this. We’re only a small country. We’ve only got 5 million people, which we only reached recently, but we’ve still not been very good at it. My job as a board member in Polio New Zealand is to correct that. Last year I managed to get 10 cities in New Zealand to light up something purple. It was either bridges or a nice building, something that was important to that city.

That worked really well except I realized that when people see buildings lit in a particular color, they don’t always realize the significance of it. They just think, oh, that’s a nice color this week. This year I want to make sure that people know what purple signifies. What it signifies is the fact that those of us that survived polio feel quite strongly that we need to make sure it never comes back. It’s not a poor me sort of day. It’s to remind the world that we have to keep it at bay. So this year I’m trying to find ways to lead up to October 24th, making sure that people understand why it’s purple. Purple signifies polio around the world because the volunteers and the polio vaccinators that do such wonderful work in third world countries around the world, they just try to vaccinate every child.

Sue Griffin (03:17): When they have given one child [the liquid drops], they put their little pinky finger on an ink pad and the pinky gets purple. That’s how purple has come to signify polio. In my efforts to try and find a way to bring it to the attention of perhaps younger generations, because you know I’m well in my seventies and I’m one of the younger ones. I want to make sure that people don’t forget that polio caused such a problem similar to COVID. The World Health Organization has said that if we don’t keep it at bay within 10 years, we’ll be back at 300,000 cases a year. In fact Papua New Guinea, which is only a plane right away from us, it’s only about maybe three hours from New Zealand by plane.

They had an outbreak a couple of years ago and it’s that close. So I’m trying to bring it to the younger ones. I thought, what can I do to make the younger ones feel a bit more involved? I thought, well, everybody likes to drink a bit. Most people do. In England a couple years ago came up. I have to say, it’s not my idea. England a few years ago, they created a purple gin. I went to one of the local wine and spirit store, and I said to him, ‘look, if I can persuade some of the many distilleries in New Zealand to create a purple gin’, because I think gin’s quite an easy one to color. It’s one that quite a lot of people probably drink. So I said, ‘if I can persuade some distilleries to create a purple gin, would you have a promotional period, like a week or a month where you have tastings and maybe experts run a little class on how to select good gin and all this sort of thing.’

Sue Griffin (05:20): They were very supportive. I written to at least 20 of the more than 100 gin distilleries in New Zealand, I’m ashamed to say. I have got a very positive response and some of them agreed that they will be creating a purple gin. They say, it’s not a problem and some of them are quite supportive and some of them even want to donate a little bit per bottle to Polio New Zealand.

Stormy Bell (05:53): That’s awesome.

Sue Griffin (05:55): I now have sort of been a victim of my own success with this because I didn’t really envision it being quite so successful. Now I’ve got to create tasting events and media tie ups and things like that. I’ll probably be creating some lunches, making people wear a purple hat or something like that. The wine shops doing these wine tastings, et cetera. So yeah, that’s the story of the purple gin.

Stormy Bell (06:26): That’s incredible. I love that journey. Now you had mentioned your survivor of polio.

Sue Griffin (06:33): Yes, I had polio in 1949 before most of the people that are in New Zealand anyway, because we have had a very good health system. Most of us contracted poly before vaccines were available. Vaccines only became created for polio in 1956. 55, 56. Most of us are fairly old and everyone’s affected differently, but most of my life was pretty reasonable actually. I had a bit of pain and lumped and couldn’t do some things, but life was normal. I got married, I had children, I became a nurse, and traveled around. They discovered however that about up to 40 years after you recovered it sort of, they used the word comes back to kick you in the butt, but it doesn’t really come back.

When you first recovered, your body created a lot of defense mechanisms. Ways for the paralyzed muscles to be stronger and get around things. Lots of different neurons that have sort of split themselves in half to cope where the other ones were destroyed. 40 years later, it’s not that it comes back, but these adaptions have worn away and can’t survive anymore. Some of us have ended back in braces, on calipers and I, myself am quite lucky in that I don’t, but I do have to use a wheelchair when I’m outside because I can’t stand up for very long. Yeah, it’s a bit of a thing. The problem, of course, in New Zealand, we’re a very sort of outdoorsy, strong people.

Sue Griffin (08:45): While we have an excellent health system, if you have an accident, even if you’re a foreigner visiting New Zealand, you’ve got free healthcare. If you fall over and break a hip or whatever, but if you dare to be sick because of a disease, then you don’t get quite the same benefits. Because of that, Polio New Zealand has come into existence and we act as a support group for each other. We raise funds. We have a very philanthropic family that assists us sometimes with funding.

Stormy Bell (09:21): Is that the Duncan family? I had read about them on your website.

Sue Griffin (09:27): Yes. Wonderful family, wonderful family. There they’re farmers in the King Country. Years ago, many years ago, 50 years ago, at least they split part of their farm off and used whatever profits came from that part, they put into a fund for polio. This was done way back in the forties and fifties when polio was around because one of the farm workers’ sons had polio, and they became very interested. They’ve been a tremendous help to us as polio survivors. They have now actually begun a foundation, a Duncan foundation, which focuses on other neuromuscular conditions which is what polio is. Without going on for hours, I can tell you how it works. A lot of people get polio and never get paralyzed and that’s just in the gut. If it continues on into the bloodstream, goes through the spinal canal to the brain is when you get the paralysis. It’s considered a neuromuscular disease as is multiple sclerosis and things like that.

Stormy Bell (10:44): Right. My uncle was in his eighties when he passed, he had polio and it took out his arm. He had very little use of his arm.

Sue Griffin (10:55): Yeah.

Stormy Bell (10:58): Interesting. Let’s see, you covered a lot of my questions.

Sue Griffin (11:04): Sorry I didn’t know much to tell you.

Stormy Bell (11:07): No, that’s awesome! I love it when you answer questions I haven’t asked. So you are a polio survivor. How did you get involved with Polio New Zealand? Have you always been involved with it or is this something you did after you retired? How did you get involved?

Sue Griffin (11:24): No, it was when polio came back and started to affect me. I was still living in Philadelphia at that time and nobody including the medical professionals had any idea what the problem was. I was working in emergency room trauma centers and I just had a lot, my pain was coming back to my legs like it had when I was younger and I couldn’t really do things. I was extremely tired. I’ve had polio in one arm and one leg, so my arm kept jumping and I went to a doctor and fortunately went to a very old doctor who was familiar with polio and he helped me.

There is a man in [the] USA. I think he lives in Trenton. Dr. Richard Bruno, who himself had polio, has been a huge research resource for polio and has written a very excellent book, which is very helpful. At the time I was working in the states as a nurse and it got to the point I couldn’t work anymore. I just couldn’t cope with the physical work. It’s quite physical in specialty areas. I had three sons, which I had with me in the states and while they were older, they had become immovable in that they had American girlfriends, went to university, and married American girls. I had choices to make. Did I go home where I could get taken care of and leave my children there or what?

Sue Griffin (13:33): I did have to come back to New Zealand. I couldn’t survive in the American, no offense, but in the American health system, I wouldn’t have survived. I came home to New Zealand where we have free healthcare. Fortunately two of my children followed me so partial success. When I got back here, I was still able to do things. I just wasn’t able to do the nursing. I did do some other things, but eventually I had to stop everything and I searched for some support and some answers and came across the Polio New Zealand association. I’ve been involved with them, I suppose for a good 15, 16 years and am now a board member and as I said, responsible for the purples.

Stormy Bell (14:30): Purples, excellent. How many people volunteer with Polio New Zealand? Just the board or do you have other roles that are volunteer?

Sue Griffin (14:41): Well, it’s listed as a charitable organization, which of course gives you benefits, not paying tax and all that sort of thing. Everyone on the board is a volunteer. Everybody in Polio New Zealand is a volunteer. We are a sort of self supporting group. There’s about 600 members. Although not everybody is actively doing anything, if anyone’s asked to do anything, there is no benefits or anything of doing it. So it’s just volunteer.

Stormy Bell (15:16): Okay. They volunteer because it’s personal to them and they want to see it continue?

Sue Griffin (15:31): Yes because one of the things is that, without crying poor me, it’s quite difficult. People today don’t know what it is and they’re not familiar with it. We have quite a lot of things like idiosyncrasies in the way we move things that other people might perceive as perhaps being rude. It’s difficult to stand up. Everyone else stands up to give a toast to somebody perhaps, and you can’t stand up. It’s difficult. You can’t, you know, and you have to explain why you walk the way you do. It’s difficult. One of the benefits of being in Polio New Zealand is when we get together, which in regions, we get together quite regularly for coffees or lunches. It’s almost like we have another family. It’s like a polio family we call it. It’s almost like a relief to get together with other people who have the same issues.

You don’t have to explain yourself. It’s quite a unique feeling really. I think everybody that’s in Polio New Zealand is invested in maintaining it as a viable group, which is always a bit of a concern because apart from refugees coming in in particular from the Malaysian and Asian countries, we haven’t had polio in New Zealand since 19- I think we had four cases in 1963, but apart from that, we haven’t had cases in New Zealand since 1956. We do have refugees. We do take quite a few refugees. At the moment we are all helping the Cambodian woman who has been here, who had polio in Cambodia and has got major problems. It’s not entirely gone in our memories here, but you know, COVID has caused… I just keep saying to people, do you mean COVID sort of has made people or it should make people remember how fragile we are as human beings. Unfortunately there’s a small percentage perhaps of non-believers, you know, anti-vaxers and it’s a concern that one day it will come back. Because if you don’t maintain [a] saturation rate of at least 92%, I think it is, it stands a chance of getting back in.

Stormy Bell (18:24): Like you had said, it is kind of scary because you can have it and have no symptoms initially. Right?

Sue Griffin (18:32): Well, correct.

Stormy Bell (18:35): But.

Sue Griffin (18:36): Correct. One of the things that is done in a proactive manner is waste waters, probably most places in the world. I know we do here. Waste waters are tested regularly for various diseases, one of which is polio. I think about three years ago, they found the polio virus present in the waste water in Melbourne. I’ll try and just quickly explain how that happens when people can get polio, it actually goes into their gut. If it sits in their gut, they don’t have any symptoms. They might feel like a flu. In fact, some people used to call it polio flu. You might feel those flu-like symptoms, but then it passes and that virus will be discreted with the feces so it can end up in the waste water.

It’s when it goes past there, as I said before into the blood system, that it becomes the big issue. I don’t think they realize particularly why that the difference is why some people, it just sits in the gut and others and progress. I guess it’s individual immunity levels and predilections to various types of bacteria. This is why they concentrate the third world vaccination rates because in countries where there’s poor sanitation and maybe open sewage, this of course is where if everybody’s not vaccinated, then one person can pick it up and so it’ll start off again.

Stormy Bell (20:29): And then it starts. Yeah. Wow.

Sue Griffin (20:33): I dunno if that answers your question or not.

Stormy Bell (20:35): It does! I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I’m gonna invite you to love on Polio New Zealand, what you love about it. Then if people want to get involved in World Polio Day and wearing purple, where would they go to learn more about it. Just love on love on it.

Sue Griffin (21:06): Everywhere in the world, there’s usually a polio association. [The] United States has one and they have quite a lot, cause you know, the March of Dimes of course was for polio. Every year they used to have the March of Dimes fundraising thing that was creative. That March of Dimes was for polio. If you remember the original poster, it had a little boy wearing a couple of wearing calipers. Canada has a big one. I think Canada has one cause one of the big issues with people that have recovered from polio, if they were in an iron lung, which a lot were then, you’ve got things like respiratory problems, swallowing problems, sleep problems. Canada has a big respiratory section for people that have survived, been in the iron lungs.

England has a big one, Ireland. I’m not sure about most of the European countries, but I’m pretty sure they do. You can just go on to Google and just Google polio associations in your region and I’m sure you’ll come up with web pages. A really good one is Australia. Australia has a very structured polio group. I mean they’re a large country and not like poor little New Zealand. We are very small and they have an excellent website. If you went into Polio Australia, you’ll get all sorts of information. Also United Kingdom is really good. In fact, they’re the ones that came out with a purple- well the polio association. I don’t know if they came up with a purple gin. I was in England a few years ago and I was pretty amused by the gin distilleries everywhere!

Sue Griffin (23:09): I did a tour with some of my sisters and there was like Scotland and Shetland Islands. There was gin everywhere. It was amazing. I even had a bottle of gin, it was made from seaweed and it was beautiful. They have rhubarb gin and rhubarb and ginger and all sorts. As I said, I was a bit embarrassed at New Zealand. I mean, we are a small group of islands but we have over a hundred gin distilleries. I don’t know how that measures out per person. It’s only 5 million people. Just say it’s not a very good advertisement, is it for New Zealand, but we are very happy about it. One of the big issues that we’ve had as polios is struggling to have medical providers involved in learning about polio. Any doctor who’s in practice now has never seen polio unless they’ve come from Pakistan or India or somewhere like that.

They don’t know what to do most of the time. They sort of just push us. As we are old, they don’t tend to take you seriously. I think they just think they can. If you present with a painful leg, yes, they can see that it’s got atrophy and it’s weaker and that, but they can only think to fix it with the way they would fix any leg that was weaker and that they don’t consider the polio aspects. We’ve put a lot of work into care plans into the medical, on their computers. There’s quite a bit of difference between America and New Zealand healthcare and I’m sure it’s probably more technical now, but when I lived there, the doctors pretty much did their notes handwriting. [In] New Zealand, doctors put everything straight into a computer and they have clinical pathways in these applications, which help them check and make sure they haven’t missed anything essentially. We’ve worked quite hard to create a clinical pathway for polio, post polio syndrome as they call it and things like that. So we’ve done quite a bit.

Stormy Bell (25:57): Okay. Very cool. Well, I have enjoyed our conversation. I wanna hear how the gin goes this October and have you back on for a little brief update and if you were able to get everyone in New Zealand to drink purple gin.

Sue Griffin (26:17): Yeah, I’m trying! I’ll do my share.

Stormy Bell (26:22): You’ll do your share. Well thank you, Sue. I appreciate your time today.

Sue Griffin (26:29): No problem.

Stormy Bell (26:30): Thank you for tuning into The Art of Volunteering. Have a great day.

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Transcript: Nancy Labov, Alumni in Recovery (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode 12: Nancy Labov, Alumni in Recovery.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Welcome to The Art of Volunteering. I’m your host Stormy Bell. Today, we’re gonna spend our time together with Nancy Labov, Founder and CEO of Alumni in Recovery. Welcome Nancy.

Nancy Labov (00:11): Hi, thank you Stormy.

Stormy Bell (00:14): All right. Nancy has been working as a nurse in psychiatric and addiction services for more than 25 years. She also has experience as an alcohol and drug counselor and serving as an EMT. She has always believed in the power of community resourcing and people working together towards a common goal. As a woman in long term recovery for over 30 years, she has a passion for recovery and prevention and recognizes that identification and awareness are key factors. In 2014, the framework for Alumni in Recovery was founded as a result of her life experience. She began bridging schools and the valuable resource of young people in recovery. Wow. Quite a history of experience. So we’re gonna start here, please share your journey and why Alumni in Recovery is your passion.

Nancy Labov (01:07): Wow. Okay. Thanks for having me. It was really nice to get a nice little overview of me. I like that. I mean, somebody wrote it within the organization and it’s great. Like it says, I’ve been in recovery from alcohol and drug use. I [have had] addiction, addiction issues for well over 30 years. I got sober when I was 26. I came from a family that had an alcoholic undertone to say the least growing up. That has been my upbringing and I have recovered and been recovering from that since. I really believe in service and as a nurse I was still using substances.

I was a party girl, Stormy. Pure and simple. It was back in the seventies. It was just the thing to do. Then into the eighties, you know. I thought that I was just doing the normal thing and I was in complete denial. There was somewhere along the line and I don’t know how terribly ambitious I was in general, except for socializing. My father introduced me to the idea of becoming a nurse and that seemed like a good idea because I like helping others. I really like helping others. I became a nurse and during being a nursing student, I realized how really connected I was to the field of addiction.

I went and did a rotation through the rehab and I just loved it. I was still active as they say. I was using substances. I did not even think that I had a problem at that time. I wanted to be an addiction nurse so bad. It was suggested to me to be a medical surgical nurse for at least the first year. So I did and then I ended up getting sober as a result of a DWI, driving while intoxicated, in Boston cause that’s where I lived at the time and I thank God for that experience. I didn’t try to run away from it. I just took responsibility for my actions. In the process, I had a family member that was already sober that I was very close to and that person was able to, [before] I went to the drunken driving assessment program, they basically told me I should abstain given my history and given my assessment and go to a couple AA meetings a week and I was horrified. I was horrified. I could not believe this. How am I ever gonna stay sober? What about the summer? I just thought it was like such a death sentence at the time. That person was with me and told me, “why don’t you just stop?” I was like, “forever?” They’re like, “do it a day at a time. Just do it a day at a time.” That was the beginning. That was the beginning. I say this because it’s really important because my experience as a nurse and a counselor through that time is all based on the fact that I got sober at that time.

Nancy Labov (05:02): Had that person not carried the message to me, I don’t know how long it would’ve taken. I think that is a huge responsibility we have as recovering people in our world. I think recovering people have not been given enough opportunities to bridge with the general public and be able to share their experience, their strength, [and] their hope to others. I think the face of recovery is able to get the whole picture of the disease concept of addiction. I believe it’s a disease concept having worked in the field so long. There’s no doubt in my mind. I also know that the recovery process is one that all of us can just benefit from. You were saying briefly just how you got involved in what you’re doing in your podcast and how we all to the heart of us to connect with others. That human threat is the piece that can keep us so alive and so whole.

I really have learned a lot from the recovery world because they call it a we program and working together with others. So, how did I come up with this idea? I was working in the field for a long time, and it was really important that I got a full spectrum of the whole scope of treatment for people with addictive processes, substance abuse, you know, substance use disorder at the time it was addiction. They changed the name of that to encompass different people due to the opioid epidemic. When I was working in treatment there was a lot of young people that were coming through. I worked rehab and I worked at a long term treatment center for women.

I came across a lot of young people that were getting sober and clean. I then had the opportunity of bringing some young people to a school to speak to the students as my position into a long term treatment center I was at. I brought these couple of women in and they were young and they were relating to the kids through their stories of where they were at when they were that age. I saw the power. I just saw it. I saw this magnificent ability to connect and see. That’s the thing about addictive processes, it separates us. We want to detach and run away from our minds. We feel so alone. We feel isolated. We feel like we don’t belong. That’s where I was at one time in my life and that has a lot to do with why I use substances.

Nancy Labov (07:53): I always had wanted to be able to go speak to kids in schools. When I got sober at 26, I said, “oh, this would be just such a great opportunity to be able to talk to them about my experience.” I wish that I had more of that when I was growing up. I grew up in the seventies so would I have heard it? I don’t know for sure, but nobody was giving me that message. There was none of that. When I saw this go on between these students and these young people, I said, we gotta do more of this.

I thought I was just gonna start bringing the women from treatment at that time, then one day a young woman said, “I want to speak at my school. That’s my school. I wanna speak there.” Somebody I knew on the outside. I was like, “hmm. Okay.” So when I was talking to the counselor at the school, she’s like, “we would love to have her come back and speak to the students. She went to school here. What a great idea.” I was out for a run. I used to do a lot of running at that time and it came to me that, ”wait a minute, I know a couple of people that could come to this school that live in this town.” Then I was like, “oh my goodness. I could actually start pairing people with their schools.” That would be tremendous.

What I have learned over my time working in treatment is that Bill Wilson who founded Alcoholics Anonymous and started out bringing his message with Dr. Bob Smith. This was around the Akron, Ohio area. They found that by sharing their stories with others, that that person could identify and begin to see things differently. To see that there was a way out. I don’t necessarily think these kids in schools need to have the same message but we are able through our guidelines, because I knew I had to create guidelines to go into schools, to go in and speak about the pathway of addiction. Speak about their lives and root causes of where they were at when they were that age of what was going on in their lives. This is such an important factor. It at least allows people to have words to go with their feelings and identify just a bit of what they’re feeling. You know, [in] this day and age, we really need this. That’s how it started.

Stormy Bell (10:58): So you work with young people who are in recovery. What are their ages and then how many volunteers do you have? How many go out and speak?

Nancy Labov (11:09): Well we have grown. It started as a trickle of a couple of people and then little by little. That whole Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come. Little by little people got involved and more people got involved. We’ve had hundreds of people go through Alumni in Recovery and speak in schools. We typically do 60 presentations a year reaching thousands of students. There’s 70 towns in Bergen County so that means there’s 60 high schools. Think of all the middle schools and there’s a lot of people to reach. So little by little we’re able to do that. There’s a lot of young people in recovery that would like to do this, would like to volunteer their time to speak to kids in schools.

Stormy Bell (12:09): Wow. You’ve already spoken to the power that happens between someone just a few years ahead of them possibly going through what they’re experiencing or what they’re dabbling in, which could be something more and maybe being that stark reality, “Ooh, do I want that for my life?” You know that one on one.

Nancy Labov (12:29): They also talk about things like the Good Samaritan law, which is [to] call 911 if somebody’s having a hard time, looks like they’re overdosing, and symptoms to look for. You know, so they understand the importance of that and that they won’t get in trouble by the police if they do that. [It’s] a nationwide law, a few states still don’t do it, but we try to educate them and inform them of certain warnings and also the deadliness, especially this day and age with fentanyl.

Stormy Bell (13:10): Wow. You’ve been doing this for 25 years? 30 years?

Nancy Labov (13:18): I have been doing Alumni in Recovery for… This September will be the eighth year from its time of conception but I have been in the field working my passions for at least 30, over 30 years.

Stormy Bell (13:42): Okay. How do people… is it just word of mouth? How do young people in recovery find you or do you find them? How does that all come about?

Nancy Labov (13:53): Well the world of recovery is pretty networked. It’s all over the country but somebody will know somebody and it just kind of spreads that way. Occasionally we’ll put out a flier “looking for new faces. You want to speak in schools?” Overall it’s word of mouth. I just got [a] text last night from somebody that I hadn’t talked to in a long time. “So, sorry. I’ve been working, but I’ve got Abdul here. He would be great to speak in schools.” I’m like, “great! Give him my number, we’ll talk tomorrow.” We do that a lot. I have about four people that kind of just became part of our community over the last two weeks. It kind of just ebbs and flows.

Stormy Bell (14:56): I’ve read on your website that you usually choose two young adults and then a briefed parent.

Nancy Labov (15:04): Oh yes. Thank you. We have a few different tiers of our program. The young people in recovery are our first one, and then we were asked to speak to parents for a PTO function one night back in like 2017. I went in with two of our young people and it was a nice group of people. I mean, we don’t normally get that many people, but you know, like, I mean, parents, it’s hard to get parents to come. That’s a whole other piece but I said, “you know what, this is a peer to peer approach thing that we do. I really think it’s time to bring in parents that have lost their kids to addiction related death you know, primarily overdoses.” I knew of a couple, and I said, I’m gonna reach out to this woman, Nancy. So that’s how that started. Here you’ll love this. Can I tell you one of those great stories that just like, wow.

Stormy Bell (16:06): Absolutely.

Nancy Labov (16:09): It started with Nancy and that was great. We had one parent that could speak to parent programs in the evening and allow the young people in recovery to speak in the day, empower them to be able to carry that message to kids. Then in the evening they could join with parent member. We started calling them. That somebody who had lost their kid to addiction, so they could talk to parents. But those two people come together. So one time there was a school in New Jersey here in Montvale and I was like, “oh, gee, I really would love to bring the alumni I have back to that school. Oh, I just don’t know how we’re gonna get in the door. Well, we’ll see what happens.” Sure enough. I get a little phone call and it’s this guy, Tom Canavan, who now happens to be the director of our parent program. He calls and he’s like, “oh hi. My name’s Tom Canavan, I’m an alumni of this school and I was trying to get in there to maybe speak.” He said, ”and then somebody told me that maybe I should reach out to you.” So he became our second parent member and he happened to be the parent that opened the door to get into that school. It’s just breathtaking. These local people that actually went to the school, you have one of our young recovery members and a parent who has lost their kid. That [were] coming together to speak.

The power in that is just blows me away and that these people just wanna give back. It’s just all they wanna do. Parent members turning their pain into purpose. It’s such courage for them to share these devastatingly, you know, hard. Well, they get to remember their kid in the light that they are, they don’t just share on their complete downfall. They share on the fact that they were thriving young kids that had full lives. Some of them may have had some, ADD or something but they didn’t ever choose this path. They try to point that out to the parents what to look for signs to look for and things like that. They also have guidelines and we do this so we can have a unified presence and create a brand that can be utilized anywhere.

Stormy Bell (18:57): That’s amazing. Now you’re strictly Bergen County? Are you all throughout the entire state, the region? Like what’s your footprint?

Nancy Labov (19:08): Whoa. A good question. So we are in Bergen County believe it or not. We have a Patterson chapter. Patterson, New Jersey is a city for all those that don’t know. It’s a large city that you know significantly not the same as Bergen. It’s different. It has a different population and a lot of the people are underserved communities. The good news is that we have a whole chapter of people that live in Patterson that have an Alumni in Recovery presence and want to bridge the recovery community with schools and community events [in] their community. So that’s awesome. We also have Passaic County. We have some presence in Sussex, in Warren County, out west New Jersey. We have some presence in Brick all the way down in Brick, which is Ocean County down by the shore and we have a decent presence in Essex County as well. A little Hudson [County]. So we’re getting there and we have people in those areas because I totally believe that you want relatable people. People that know the area and live within the area.

Stormy Bell (20:38): Everyone’s reaching their own people, per se. They’re able to relate, they know the school, they know the areas, they know what’s going on. They have a pulse of the community.

Nancy Labov (20:51): Totally. It’s one of the identifying factors. I think it’s really important. We don’t go in and say, “hi, I’m Nancy. I’m an alcoholic.” That’s kind of a very AA type of way of talking. Our members will go in and be like, “hi, I’m Morgan. I’m 25. I’m from River Edge, New Jersey.” That’s how people qualify because it’s not an AA meeting, it’s not an NA meeting, it’s not either of those wonderful self help healing, 12 step recovery organizations. There’s many, we’re not trying to take from that or trying to go against their traditions or anything. This is a different model and it had to be created. As a nurse, I really, really feel that this is a community issue.

The only way we’re gonna reach the community is through connection with each other. We are living in a time where we’re so severely isolated in our own little bunkers, as Brené Brown would say. I love Brené Brown. She says, ’we live in a society where we go into our holes and we’re on our computers. We’re doing Facebook, texting. We’re just not relating so much.’ We really need to give words and language to this, to everybody in our communities. We’re kind of also the event planners of addiction. That’s the third tier of us. We basically create and produce events for towns, county level, city, whatever, and we do that a lot with Dee Gillen [of] The Black Poster Project who is our sister partner. She is one of our members as a parent, but she has created her own 501(c)(3) of these marvelous, hundreds of posters. I know you’ve had her as a guest before.

Stormy Bell (22:59): She has been a guest. Yes. She’s wonderful. Powerful story.

Nancy Labov (23:04): She really is. I don’t know if she sent you pictures. I hope she did.

Stormy Bell (23:08): She did. It’s wonderful. Actually on your website, you have one. I don’t know if it’s your board picture, it’s standing in front of some of those pictures.

Nancy Labov (23:20): Oh yes! Back before the pandemic, we were really doing these community events. We were doing them [at] the same place, same time every quarter so people could kind of get into the flow of seeing that this is a community action issue. We need everybody. Somebody’s gonna donate food, we’re gonna have resources tables, and we’re gonna have speakers because it begins with the language of the heart. If we’re not connecting through our stories, we won’t find that common bond. We won’t change our perceptions. We can. We so can. We can recover our world by working together. There is no doubt in my mind.

Stormy Bell (24:12): Awesome. Now you’ve already shared a couple stories just in our conversation. Do you have another story of impact that you’d like to share?

Nancy Labov (24:21): I would love to share this one. This one was one of the most heartwarming things that had happened. I brought back an alumni to a town to speak at the school to the students and while he was there, he spoke all day. He wanted so much to be able to speak. His name’s Raheem. Raheem was speaking and part of his story was that he never got his diploma because he never turned in his library books. I mean, it’s just part of that alcoholic behavior. You let go of some important things because you just can’t care. Partly probably it’s part being a youth I guess, but anyways he never returned his library books, or textbooks so he never got his diploma. That was his story. At the end of his share, the principal started sharing and he gave him a diploma.

Stormy Bell (25:21): Oh, did he really? Wow.

Nancy Labov (25:24): In front of all the students and that still just gives me chills. Just the healing. It’s about healing. When people come together you just don’t know how far that healing level will take you. It might be good for the members going into share because it just gives us so much back. You can’t keep it unless you give it away. It’s a big quote in 12 step recovery. The fact that the school, some of the staff knew these people pre recovery. It helps on so many levels for people to have these healing, connections and engagements with each other.

Stormy Bell (26:18): Amazing.

Nancy Labov (26:20): Oh, I love that diploma story.

Stormy Bell (26:22): You’re warming my heart just as you speak, I’m just like, wow. Wow.

Nancy Labov (26:27): It’s so important. I really believe this is the one thing we can come together on Stormy. The fact that addiction doesn’t discriminate. It could happen to anybody and it’s the one disease that’s preventable. So it’s something, if we are talking about it we put light on it, cause it would light to fester in the dark and not be talked about, you know? In recovery we talk about it all the time. At least if we could bring it to the forefront and talk about it now and again with people we can connect so much better.

Stormy Bell (27:03): You’re changing perceptions.

Nancy Labov (27:05): I hope so. I mean it does. It is just my goodness. I can be real grand. I have grand ideas. I wrote Oprah the other day and I was like “Oprah, I got a solution here. Okay. Pay attention please. Oprah. I read your book. What? You know what happened to you?” Great book by the way. Oh, all about healing trauma. Yeah.

Stormy Bell (27:33): Oh that’s awesome. Very good.

Nancy Labov (27:36): Yeah.

Stormy Bell (27:37): All right. This is a question I think is fun. I don’t know if my guests think it is.

Nancy Labov (27:42): Okay.

Stormy Bell (27:43): Can you share a blooper? Something that didn’t go right. Then tell me what you learned from it.

Nancy Labov (27:50): Oh my gosh. I bloop every day for crying out loud.

Stormy Bell (27:56): One that stands out more than others.

Nancy Labov (28:02): What stands out more… I’ll tell you what really is important, to learn how to let go and let other people take the reins now and again. Because this is something I created, you know, I think I’m the only one that can do it just right. There’s many people. There is no I in team and I always profess that but if you are creating something and you’re really passionate about it it’s a wonderful thing, but you have to be careful that you’re not burning yourself out. That you’re allowing yourself to have some self care and self time, however that looks outside the organization. I am not the organization, the organization is not me. Big lesson. That’s a big one. That and don’t take yourself so seriously all the time.

Stormy Bell (29:12): That’s awesome. I love it. Yeah. Thank you.

Nancy Labov (29:15): Okay.

Stormy Bell (29:15): All right. We’re almost at the end of our time, I have one more opportunity for you to love on Alumni in Recovery. Just why should people get involved? Why should people come and hear your stories? Just love on your love on what you do?

Nancy Labov (29:34): Oh my gosh, you know, our community events, everything. It’s just such an ability for people to be able to just find a way to relate to each other. We’re back to connections. It’s all about the healing and the connections. I think that if anybody lives in the New Jersey area, I have something I love where the New York state line, where at Tallman Mountain State Park which is on the New York state line on the Hudson River. There’s a pool club there called Tallman Beach and Pool Club. We’re having Recovery Day. Recovery Day is an event that was created by the manager there who’s also in recovery. That was one of those little things that just happened. Like, whoa, well, how’d that happen? It’s gonna be bands. It’s gonna be music, food. The ability to hear good speakers, resources come together, paint rocks which is something that we do you know, have a little healing modalities in the back. You could swim. I mean, this is so many opportunities and that’s September 18th in the middle of National Recovery Month. I’m gonna love on Alumni in Recovery by mention.

Stormy Bell (31:08): Go right ahead.

Nancy Labov (31:09): Go to our website. No, better yet go to Facebook and go to Alumni in Recovery and find out more information about it.

Stormy Bell (31:20): Awesome. We will have that in our show notes so people can be able to find that and more information.

Nancy Labov (31:27): Anybody can get involved. Anybody.

Stormy Bell (31:29): Absolutely. I’m encouraging them to. Awesome. Well, Nancy, thank you for being my guest today. This has been so enlightening, so encouraging and I hope that our listeners find something that they can truly embrace.

Nancy Labov (31:48): Well, thank you very much.

Stormy Bell (31:49): So I do want to thank you.

Nancy Labov (31:50): Okay. It’s been a great time. Maybe one day we’ll run into each other on the highway.

Stormy Bell (31:54): That’d be awesome. Absolutely. I want to thank my listeners. Thank you for joining us today. I hope you got as much out of it as I did. I look forward to seeing you on our next episode of The Art of Volunteering, have a great day.

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Transcript: Dee Gillen, The Black Poster Project (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode 11: Dee Gillen, The Black Poster Project.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Welcome my friends to another episode of The Art of Volunteering. Today’s episode is gonna target your heart. My guest today is Dee Gillen, the founder of The Black Poster Project. Dee lives in Haworth, a small town in Bergen County, New Jersey with her husband Greg and together they raised three children, Scott, Deborah, and Eric. Dee welcome.

Dee Gillen (00:21): Hi, thanks for having me.

Stormy Bell (00:23): Our mutual friend introduced us a short while back. The mission that you and The Black Poster Project as is on is so meaningful and impactful, and I’d like you to share your story.

Dee Gillen (00:35): Sure. My story started, on this path that I’m [on] right now, about 17, 18 years ago when Scott was just getting into high school. He started using drugs and alcohol about that time and it turned our life upside down and my family’s life upside down. Every one of us. We lost him in 2015 on October 15. Since then it’s just been a real journey of putting my ideas into action [and] helping to raise awareness. I’m trying to use the tragedy to help others is basically what it is now.

Stormy Bell (01:26): Can you share a little bit about who Scott was? Like just the person?

Dee Gillen (01:32): Yeah. Scott was very intelligent, very coordinated, very talented in sports, but we noticed when he was younger that all of his talent, he didn’t really embrace it. You know, he would be an accelerated reader in grade school and they would want to put him ahead of where his friends were at. He didn’t want that. He wanted to be back where his friends were. In sports, he was very good at football, lacrosse, [and] basketball. He was always kind of a little ahead, away from his friends. We always look back at that and think that that was frustrating for him. He had these gifts and unfortunately he didn’t get to use them the way they should have been used. It presented more of a frustrating element in his life.

He was very intelligent. When I tell his story, I always reference how he went to take his SATs. He never did any classes. He never did any studying. He showed up as they were literally closing the door with no calculator, nothing and he got two wrong in the math section. He was really, really smart. That’s my boy. He was my first born. He was 27 when he passed.

Stormy Bell (03:08): Wow. Not to make Scott a statistic, but in 2020, 92,000 drug overdoses occurred, that’s just shy of the 7,700 a month. This affects a lot of people.

Dee Gillen (03:27): Mm-hmm. Yes.

Stormy Bell (03:30): When you and I were talking before the interview, you shared a little bit about how you had prepared yourself for the outcome. You had resigned yourself. Can you just share a little bit about that to our listeners, what that process was?

Dee Gillen (03:46): Well it was a 10 year process and somewhere in that process, my husband and I realized that this can go either way. He can recover or he won’t and he won’t be with us. I just think that that is part of the process of what you deal with when someone you love is going through this. It can happen very easily and you just have to be prepared either way. For the good ending or the not so good ending. So we started preparing somewhere around two years before his death and to the point where we actually made a video and pictures for his wake. It sounds crazy and all, but it was a form of therapy that we had to do for ourselves in order to get through this.

We put everything away, you know, he had to overdose in 2013. That’s what made us realize, you know what, this might not be a good ending. We did all that prep work. He overdosed twice, 2013 and then again closer to 2014. He was clean for one whole year. We were pretty happy, but we didn’t want to be off guard because anything can happen, especially with fentanyl the way it’s traveling through all of our communities. We prepared and when he passed away, we had everything basically ready. I mean literally I had the readings and the prayers for the mass. It’s a really difficult process but I think that it’s part of what you go through when someone you love is going through addiction. So unfortunately we had to make that part of our plan.

Stormy Bell (05:43): Where did The Black Poster Project come from? Explain a little bit about what it is and then explain how that helped you with the healing process.

Dee Gillen (05:55): So what [The Black Poster Project] is a project I started in 2019. I was speaking at an overdose awareness event in Piermont for a local group in Nyack. I had an idea to make posters of people that were coming to the event that lost someone. It was very pretty, it was on the Hudson River and we attached them to the fence. It was behind the whole event and the speakers. There were a lot of restaurants and people walking around, they kept coming over to look at the pictures and it was very impactful. They weren’t necessarily coming to this event, but they were drawn in and I realized that it was something that hit, not just people going through this, but other people on the outside of this situation that they just wanted to know, who are these people? What happened to them? They’re all smiling. They’re all happy. What happened to them? It gave families like us a way to express our stories. So from 2019 I started with about 48 posters, I think 50 posters and now I have nearly 500. We travel around and we are able to share our beloveds in the light that they should be seen in, not the way that they left this world.

Stormy Bell (07:16): The real person. 

Dee Gillen (07:18): Right.

Stormy Bell (07:20): How many volunteers do you have to help you with these exhibits?

Dee Gillen (07:26): It varies. It takes three to four hours to set up a display. That’s indoors. Outdoors it could take a little longer. It’s a huge process. The more hands we have to help, the better, the easier the job is. It could take anywhere from a half a dozen to 25 people. It all depends on who’s available and who can come. A lot of people will just show up to help or they’ll come to the display and they’ll say, do you need any help breaking down? Then they’ll just kind of stay and help us at the end. So it’s hard to say how many, but it does take quite a bit of help to do each and every display. I’m a perfectionist. I want every child on those posters to look perfect.

Stormy Bell (08:14): And they should.

Dee Gillen (08:16): Yeah.

Stormy Bell (08:18): The Black Poster Project partners with Alumni in Recovery. The founder Nancy Labov is going to be a guest on an upcoming episode, but can you tell about the partnership that you have, how you collaborate and how meaningful it is to both organizations.

Dee Gillen (08:40): We’re both our own nonprofit 501(c)(3). We’re two separate organizations, but we met at that speaking event I was telling you about in 2019. Nancy came right up to me after I finished speaking and she said, we have to work together. Well she was right. She works with all people in recovery. That is her mission. I work with people that have lost their battle to addiction. That’s my mission. So we started working together. What’s really unusual about it is that the first couple years after Scott died, it was very awkward and a little frightening for me. I mean, for all of us, but you know people don’t know what to say. People don’t know what to say when they’re face to face with somebody that has buried a child. It is so difficult to know what to say when you haven’t experienced it.

I kind of felt a little void, but when I met Nancy I realized that her and her organization, all the people in her organization, literally embraced us. They wanted to be with us. I thought that was really unusual because you would think people in recovery would want to be far away from the demise that our family is going through and so many others but that’s not what happened. They embraced us and all of a sudden I felt like, you know what? This is home. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. Working with all the people in recovery. It just was such a perfect match and you don’t really see it that often. You don’t really see people in recovery and recovery organizations have a branch of the grieving families. She put this together and it is just an absolutely extraordinary combination. We really enjoy working together.

Stormy Bell (10:32): Now several of those alumni are volunteers for you.

Dee Gillen (10:38): Yes. Well, Nancy has a parent program. She has a sub program within [Alumni in Recovery] that’s just parents that have lost children. That’s initially how I got involved with her. I’m part of her parent program as well. Her organization, people in recovery, as well as the parents in the parent program are all part of my organization as well. We are partners, two separate organizations, but we work side by side in everything we do.

Stormy Bell (11:18): How do yours, hers, you combined, how does this aid in the recovery of an alumni? How does this help them?

Dee Gillen (11:30): This is my opinion, but from what I see, they want to keep what could happen to them close to the surface. When they’re at our displays and handling the posters and seeing reactions of people that come to look and see and read the stories, it helps them to know this is important. I’m in program, I’m in recovery, and being at these displays is the exact reason why I have to stay on my program. I think it helps them just to keep things at the surface. When you’re in recovery, you don’t want to move on like it never happened because you have to keep it. It’s part of you. You have to keep what could be your demise. You have to keep that at the surface, never be complacent about it.

Stormy Bell (12:26): Right. Shifting a little bit, but kind of the same vein. How does The Black Poster Project help in the healing of families who have lost someone? What do they go through?

Dee Gillen (12:43): Everybody’s different. The Black Poster Project is [a] super heavyhearted project and it isn’t for everybody. I have very good friends that have lost people and they want nothing to do with it because it’s just too difficult. You’re not only seeing your child on a poster, but you’re seeing hundreds of others as well. Then there’s another half of people like me, my family, and my friends that work on the project and the parent program, it helps. It helps to know you’re not alone. All these other people have gone through the same thing. It’s such a difficult journey. You don’t know what it could possibly feel like. You know, we lose people in our lives, parents or grandparents or pets and all, but to lose a child is a whole different process. It is like nothing I could even start to describe. It’s very, very difficult.

When you put us all together, whether we are here at the display together or people, I have people in my project from here to Hawaii, we are together and we are a support for each other. It does help. It helps a lot just to know that we’re not alone. The other people, the other families that are in this project, we’re not afraid to approach or ask questions or say I had a bad day. You know, I saw my son’s best friend get married or had a baby, things that our kids should be doing. It’s very difficult. The littlest things that you wouldn’t even think would be an issue are. People that are in this project, other families, we don’t even have to know each other. We don’t even have to have ever met, but we understand each other sometimes more than our own friends and families do. It’s a support.

Stormy Bell (14:38): I can see that. How many families participate in The Black Poster Project?

Dee Gillen (14:44): I have almost four 70 right now. They come to me. I can’t solicit anybody because like I said, it’s [a] very heavyhearted project. It’s not for me to say, I hear you lost your child. Would you like to be included in this project? It isn’t for everybody. I wait till they come to me. That being said, within just a couple years, it grows and grows and grows so much so it goes from 48 posters to 470 posters. It’s a lot, it’s a huge amount of posters. Every poster represents a family and friends of that person. It’s just huge when you see it all together.

Stormy Bell (15:32): I like how you refer to them as souls. It just makes it so much more, I don’t even know the right word, meaningful. That doesn’t even scratch the surface. It just struck me the way you used the word soul. Just, yeah. I apologize that I’m at a loss for words, for that. I just know that struck me.

Dee Gillen (15:57): No, I know what you mean. People that know me and have seen me with my project know that I treat them like they’re my own children. I even refer to them as my kids and other people will say, where do you want the kids? You know, we refer to them as if they’re still here. When all the volunteers come to help, they see that. They feel that. It is like when you’re picking up a poster to set it in place, like you’re actually carrying the person. That’s the feeling. We don’t tell them, treat them with respect. We don’t have to say that. People treat them as if they’re still here and that’s how we refer to them. That’s how we treat them. The posters, their souls, you know, they’re still with us.

Stormy Bell (16:45): Yes. As long as we share their stories, they will remain with us.

Dee Gillen (16:50): Correct. Yeah.

Stormy Bell (16:51): Alright. If you would, share your most meaningful story with The Black Poster Project. I’m sure you had lots, but what was one that just kind of comes to the surface? Most meaningful story.

Dee Gillen (17:05): Oh my God. It’s so- That’s a really hard one because it’s very difficult to answer that because every single one of them, I put myself into the story. I don’t know if I could single one out. I can say that when somebody will send me their information, they’ll just send me a picture and add my son and the dates, their birth and death dates. I write back and I say, I have to be with you. I have to be in your family. I have to work with you. It’s not something that I do. Every poster, I don’t just make it in a day. I work with each family. I wanna hear their stories, funny things, not so funny things, what happened so that I can make that poster with their love included. It’s hard for me to pick out one story. Every single one of them, I feel the same thing when I make every single poster and I do every single story and I work with every single family. It’s hard to pick one out because every one of them has a special effect on me.

Stormy Bell (18:21): Yeah. I can see like when you talked about how they’re still with us and like [how they’re] your children, you relive that each time you add a soul to your exhibit. It’s a new family member being brought into the fold.

Dee Gillen (18:38): Yes, exactly.

Stormy Bell (18:41): Now, even though this is a heavyhearted subject, can you share a blooper experience? Something that didn’t go right, that you learned from, and were able to use what you learned?

Dee Gillen (18:54): Well, there’s two stories. One is funny and one might not be so funny, but it was the lesson I learned, like you had mentioned. When we had done a display a couple of years ago when the project was new. It wasn’t even a 501(c)(3) then it just was like when we first started and we did a display. In the beginning it was a matter of people just [saying] can you have my best friend? I just lost my boyfriend. I just lost this person. I would add them, not even thinking anything about the magnitude of what I was doing.

We had an event and this family came to the event. They had lost two sons to an overdose. One a few years prior and then one more recently. I didn’t have both sons. I just had the one in my project. They were coming just to kind of seek support and be with other people going through what they were going through. After the event that evening, the son called and he was like, my mother was so upset. She didn’t tell her friends what her son died of and there he is on a poster in this overdose awareness event. It really was a wake up call that I am handling treasured souls of people’s families and I have to treat them like that. That’s where I really made a turnaround. I have to have a consent form. It has to be the next of kin. I’m going to talk and research and make sure, look up the obituary and just make sure that, you know, everything is in check.

That was one lesson I really learned about if I’m gonna do this, I have to treat them like they are my own children. So that was that one lesson but there was a little funny story I could tell you, we did laugh even though this is such a heavyhearted program and it is difficult. A lot of people come and they’re very upset and crying when they come to these displays, but there was one that we did last summer and we set up the display and then we just kind of were sitting in a little circle while people were walking around. It was a beautiful sunny day and all of a sudden I look over and there is dog piddling on the back of one of the posters. It’s not that I’m laughing at that, it’s just the what happened? The dog, you know, had no idea. The person was looking at the posters. They didn’t even understand. They didn’t see it. I’m watching this like, oh my God.

Stormy Bell (21:31): Oh my word that is cute.

Dee Gillen (21:36): Well, you know, it was just a fun story.

Stormy Bell (21:38): It is and it isn’t. I’m with you. I can see why you chuckle.

Dee Gillen (21:40): I mean we get a little punchy too. You know, you have to, when you’re doing stuff on this level. This type of work, you know, we do laugh. We do go, we set up, volunteers they think that they’re coming to like a mass wake but they’re surprised when they get there that, you know, we’re people. Yeah we’ve been through the unimaginable, but we laugh. We still laugh and we want you to laugh with us.

Stormy Bell (22:07): OK. Dee, we are at the point in the interview where I’m gonna give you the floor and let you love on The Black Poster Project. Just why people should come out and see an exhibit, why someone should consider volunteering, whatever you want, just love on your organization.

Dee Gillen (22:28): Okay. I think what I’d like to say about The Black Poster Project is it is something that I really wish people would come out and see bring their children. We’ve created this place where it’s soft and gentle, and it is a place that if you wanted to have a conversation with someone that’s going through addiction, or just wanna know more or trying to talk to your kids about it, but you know, either they’re not listening or they think they don’t wanna hear about it, bring them. It’s not a scary thing. It is a gentle environment that we’ve created where our arms are wide open. We’re ready to answer questions. As parents, as siblings, people in recovery, what did we see? Did you see signs? What can we do if we know somebody? It’s really a very impactful display that we’ve put together between my organization and [Alumni in Recovery].

It really is worthwhile to come and view it, but also if you ever have a moment to help, it is an experience that I promise all volunteers will leave with more than they came with. It is very emotional. It’s an experience. It’s an experience to come to and it’s an experience to also hands on help us. I don’t think anybody that would wanna volunteer would be disappointed if they took the time to do that. We need volunteers. That’s all we run on. If we didn’t have volunteers, we would never be able to do the work that we’re doing right now. It is all volunteer. We don’t charge for anything. We don’t charge for any family to be in the poster project. We do require so much help so if we didn’t have all the volunteers that came out to help us, we’d never be able to do this mission that we’re doing.

Stormy Bell (24:42): Dee thank you for being a guest today. I know that your mission for The Black Poster Project has touched at least one listener. I’m so sure of that and that they will find some healing as a result of our conversation. I do want to thank you for that. Listeners if you go to the show notes, there are a couple links on there. One shows the exhibit in process, it shows it being set up and just, it brought [a] tear to my eye. Then I listened to the next episode that Dee sent me about her story and Scott’s story. Please take the time to listen, to watch them. It just adds so much of understanding to what Dee and I just spoke about. Thank you again.

Dee Gillen (25:37): Thank you so much for having me today and for including Nancy as well.

Stormy Bell (25:42): Just so our listeners know, August 31st is International Overdose Awareness Day. Take the time to pause and to reflect and remember, especially if you have lost someone who’s dear to you and help, you know, be an encourager to someone who is living with a battle of addiction. Just be aware, be sensitive, [and] be a support to the families going through it. Your simple act of kindness will mean so much in ways that you can’t imagine.

Dee Gillen (26:20): Absolutely. By the way, on August 31st, prosecutor of Bergen County Prosecutor [Mark] Musella has invited us to do a display in front of the Bergen County courthouse. He’s a very big supporter of our mission, both of our missions. We’ll be there on Overdose Awareness Day.

Stormy Bell (26:41): Wonderful. Those living in Bergen County or the area around there, please take the time to go to the courthouse. I don’t wanna say you won’t be disappointed. You’ll be moved in a way that you haven’t ever been moved before. So again, Dee thank you. Thank you listeners for joining us today. I look forward to seeing you next time on The Art of Volunteering as we continue to connect volunteers worldwide. Have a great day bye bye.

Show Notes & Links
“The Black Poster Project” –
“The creator of ‘THE BLACK POSTER PROJECT shares about her son SCOTT GILLEN” –
The Black Poster Project –
Alumni in Recovery –

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Transcript: Tracey Weldy & Michelle Ward, Kids Can’t Fight Cancer Alone (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode 10: Tracey Weldy & Michelle Ward, Kids Can’t Fight Cancer Alone.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Welcome my friends to another episode of The Art of Volunteering. I’m your host, Stormy Bell. On today’s episode, we are in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, so I’m excited about this. Our guests will share their personal stories on how cancer entered their lives and how their experiences birth Kids Can’t Fight Cancer Alone. My guest Michelle Ward, her journey began with her son being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 17 in November 2018. He was considered no evidence of disease on May 1st, 2019.

The community has supported them overwhelmingly, through and beyond his journey. Tracey Weldy was included in that support and reached out to her in the summer of 2019 about holding a fundraiser for two other families in the area that had received a childhood cancer diagnosis. They were young families and were as well known in the communities like our kids, due to their age. The fundraiser was created with enormous responses and success, and we decided we would like to continue to help families facing a childhood cancer diagnosis like our family had.

Tracey is a mother of a childhood cancer survivor who was so humbled by her journey that she wanted to make sure she gave back to her community, making sure no family goes through this alone. Tracey and Michelle, thank you for coming on The Art of Volunteering today.

Tracey Weldy (01:33): Thank you for having us.

Michelle Ward (01:35): Thank you, Stormy.

Stormy Bell (01:37): Before we discuss the Kids Can’t Fight Cancer Alone, I want to invite both of you to have an opportunity to share your childhood cancer journey, and then maybe mention how it changed you, your perspective, your compassion, your heart, just share on that. Let’s go with Michelle first.

Michelle Ward (02:00): Well, our journey started when Timmy was 17, had found a lump under his armpit and through several months of doctoring through pediatrician, a surgeon, they decided that there was nothing to be worried about. He waited until the fall of 2018 before we decided to have a biopsy. Of course, a week later, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So suddenly, we entered a world that we had no idea about.

I saw people on news stations and saw people in other communities where you hear stories of your child having cancer, but until you live it yourself, it is so hard to wrap your brain around. Through his journey, his cancer diagnosis, his treatments, we received so much support, overwhelming support from local people, our communities, local communities. It was unbelievable.

When his journey was completed, we were interested in trying to figure out how to give back to all of those people that helped us. It changed us in the way we looked at life. Things that previously may have been important, which in his case, the local football game, who’s going to win this week, okay, maybe that wasn’t as important as we originally thought it was. We wanted to be able to help people on a whole other level. I knew Tracey from previously with her daughter being diagnosed and she reached out to me and wanted to start something together.

Stormy Bell (03:57): Tracey, how about you?

Tracey Weldy (04:01): So my journey started right before Christmas of 2016. My daughter woke up, she had a lump on her neck. I’m a nurse, so I wasn’t really all that concerned about it. We went to the doctor’s for a routine checkup and the doctor wasn’t concerned about it, but it didn’t go away. It didn’t go away, so they did an ultrasound. They decided to put her on antibiotics, test her for Lyme. Somehow, the test was inaccurate and they diagnosed her with Lyme disease. My daughter doesn’t go outside. If she had a bug on her, she would know.

I questioned that diagnosis and asked to be referred outside of our local medical facility to speak with someone who deals with it on a regular basis. We went and saw him, and he’s like, “She doesn’t have Lyme.” That was on a Friday. On a Tuesday, she was diagnosed. The medical facility that we went to, I can’t even express enough how they just were wonderful with us. I mean, we literally had blood work done on Friday and on Monday, they were calling us saying, “Be prepared. We need you to come on down, pack your bags. We got to figure out what’s going on here.” So it was quick.

I’ve taken care of children that have had childhood cancer diagnoses. I don’t know, you don’t expect it to happen to your child. It’s not your child that’s going to get that. So we were blown away, and then the community was wonderful. My family has lived in this community forever, so everybody knows us, and it was just overwhelming. When Timmy got diagnosed, there was a wrestling match. First of all, when Timmy got diagnosed, it was like a Band-Aid being ripped off.

My daughter was in remission, and I think a lot of times when you’re first diagnosed, you don’t have the chance to process your feelings because you have a job to do. You’re the mom, you’ve got to keep everybody together and this is going to work out okay. You don’t have time to go through everything, you’re very focused. So when Timmy got diagnosed, it literally was like a Band-Aid was ripped off. We were starting to heal and then it just… Flood of emotions occurred.

There was a wrestling match between Troy and Canton that was occurring and Troy wanted to do something. I said, “Well, let’s put a basket together.” I reached out on Facebook and this basket was like, I mean, I can’t even begin to tell you how much people donated to this basket. My daughter then said to me after everybody participated that she really wanted to make sure everybody got the same attention, that it wasn’t just two kids that are popular in the community that get this attention, that it’s every child in this community gets the same amount of attention.

I said okay, and then there was a couple other things that occurred along the way that I reached out and the community helped us and then came the Gold Out game. Timmy was out of chemo and I called Michelle up and said, “Hey, I have this idea. What do you think?” She’s like, “I think it’s a great idea.” We presented it to the school districts that were involved, and the rest is history.

Michelle Ward (08:09): Yes.

Tracey Weldy (08:09): Yeah. The rest is history.

Stormy Bell (08:14): Wow. Having grown up in Bradford County, I know firsthand about how the community can rally around a family. [I’ve] been to several dinners in benefit of whoever it is. We come out in force.

Tracey Weldy (08:30): Yes, we do. We definitely take care of our people.

Michelle Ward (08:31): Yes, for sure.

Stormy Bell (08:34): Everyone in your organization’s volunteer, correct?

Tracey Weldy (08:42): Yes.

Stormy Bell (08:43): How do they volunteer? Just share a little bit about that.

Tracey Weldy (08:49): Do you want to go, Michelle?

Michelle Ward (08:51): Sure. First off, we actually have an official board, which they as well are all volunteers. Obviously we have a president, a vice president, a treasurer. We have started some subcommittees that different people are involved with so that we have the extra support when we are starting a fundraiser or doing a fundraiser that they can be in charge of. All of our board members are volunteers to start with.

Each one has placed themselves in a specific role, just basically wherever they feel comfortable. If they’re not comfortable going out into the community and going face-to-face with local business members to even just let them know that we’re having a fundraiser coming up and we would like their help, that’s fine. They have other behind the scenes items that they do. We have others, Tracey, for example, who is not afraid to hit the pavement and out on the sidewalk, and she’s out there speaking to local businesses and helping them get involved and inviting them to come on board with us.

We have a board that has self-proclaimed jobs, specific jobs that they do, that they feel comfortable with. Then we have volunteers depending on the type of fundraiser we are being involved with or hosting. Back this winter, we had a poker tournament. Obviously, we had several participants. The board members were all very active in volunteering to help with that poker tournament but we also had other ladies and gentlemen who came in and donated their time, just even by serving the dinner that we had that day. I mean, it goes from the very least to the very top. Everyone is more than happy to help support us.

Stormy Bell (11:01): That’s awesome. About how many people is that? I guess on the board, and then when you have special events, how does that increase for the number of volunteers?

Michelle Ward (11:10): Our board members, we currently have five. Okay, let me count, because I got to make sure. Is five right, Tracey?

Tracey Weldy (11:19): Yes.

Michelle Ward (11:21): Yes-

Tracey Weldy (11:21): No.

Michelle Ward (11:22): Six! We have six.

Tracey Weldy (11:24): Six, because we’re missing one. We have an open board position.

Michelle Ward (11:29): Correct. So we have six board members that are active participants and volunteer all of their time. Depending on the event is when we decide how many volunteers we need. How large the event’s going to be. If it’s going to be indoors, outdoors, are we serving dinner? Is a local facility like a restaurant, a golf course, are they involved? Every single person that is involved depending on the size of our fundraiser is a volunteer.

Stormy Bell (12:05): Okay. Very cool. So you became a 501(c)(3), what? 2019?

Tracey Weldy (12:16): We actually filed the paperwork in December of 2019. Yes.

Stormy Bell (12:25): Well, since you filed the paperwork, how many families have you helped?

Tracey Weldy (12:33): Well, it’s kinda funny because when we opened up the Gold Out game for any child who had gone through childhood cancer and was a survivor, to let us know, and we would recognize them at the game. We have those families that came into our organization even before our organization was formed. Since we’ve actually been a 501(c)(3), we have four families that have been diagnosed since then but we had a couple families that still were going through treatment that we are supporting still.

Michelle Ward (13:20): Correct.

Stormy Bell (13:24): My first guest that I had on The Art of Volunteering was Sami Gray, and she is a childhood cancer survivor, and she lives out in the Wyoming/Idaho area. One of the organizations she volunteers with is Jason’s Friends, and they raise financial assistance for families but it’s more restricted that it’s for the family coming and going to their treatments, like for gas, accommodations. Do you have restrictions on your assistance or is it more broad?

Michelle Ward (13:58): Our assistance I would say is more broad. It depends on what the family needs at the time, because each journey is different for each family. Yes, if they need gas cards, we get them gas cards. It depends on how many times a week or a month they have to go for treatments, if that is an issue. If it’s a family that is truly struggling financially due to the diagnosis, a lot of times, either one or both of the parents can no longer work.

I mean, it’s not only just the child you have with cancer, you also have the rest of your children to consider as far as moving on with life, activities, normal day items. So there are several times when both parent members or at least one can no longer go to work. When that becomes an issue financially for them to be able to sustain their housing or groceries or anything like that, we are more than happy to step in and get grocery cards, or we will pay their rent, or if they have medical bills that are not covered by their insurance due to copays, we will take care of those. So ours is not restricted.

Stormy Bell (15:21): Not so restricted. It’s broad.

Michelle Ward (15:24): Correct.

Stormy Bell (15:25): Wow. With that, everything you do is really fundraising. You don’t do any programming support groups or do you?

Tracey Weldy (15:39): Well, we are starting to.

Stormy Bell (15:43): Oh, okay, perfect.

Tracey Weldy (15:46): It’s not so much a support group as it is more of all of us being together as they’re our family. This past year, we invited everyone that’s a part of our organization to go on this hayride at [this] place called Miller Mazes. They have mazes and hayrides, and it was a really fun evening. It gives a chance for all the families to be together. You don’t know what it’s like to go through it unless you’ve been through it.

Even though every journey is different and outcome is different, the story’s different, how it impacts them is different, we at least get the emotions. We understand what they’re feeling. We also had a roller skating party. We hope to build upon this a little bit more. We had one child finish up chemotherapy recently, and we’ve got the fire trucks involved and they paraded the family home. We have another one coming up here in August that we’re planning that we’re going to do the same thing. We have another little boy in October, same thing, we decorate their yard and we make a big deal out of it, because it is a big deal, finishing up chemotherapy and ringing that bell.

Stormy Bell (17:13): It is.

Tracey Weldy (17:18): Our Gold Out game was for two kiddos. The one little girl who it was for actually passed away. She passed away March 14th, 2020. The shutdown was March 15th, 2020 so there [were] a lot of issues there. One thing that we have done since then every August around her birthday, we hold a blood drive in her memory.

We take in donations for the Ronald McDonald House as well, because they lived a lot out of Ronald McDonald Houses. She was sent all over the place trying to find a cure, a miracle, so they spent a lot of time in those houses. We know how important the Ronald McDonald House is to our kids and not just our kids, but any family that needs to use the Ronald McDonald House. To be able to have lodging is extremely important, so we do the blood drive.

Last year in October, you’ll know, the Canton/Troy football game, big rivalry game, we decided the Ronald McDonald House collects aluminum tabs, they turn that in for money. They use that money for their daily operations. Well, we have a competition now that’s ongoing and it has really taken off. It’s called the Tab War, and the schools collect these tabs and whatever school collects the most pounds wins. I think what was it, Michelle? 1,300 pounds of tabs that [were] collected last year?

Michelle Ward (19:06): Yes.

Tracey Weldy (19:08): Crazy amount of tabs, and this year’s going to be even better because [of] all the surrounding communities. I have tab collections in Towanda and Wysox.

Michelle Ward (19:19): As of right now, the day after the results from the Tab War, I mean, the moment the tabs were weighed, everyone was back on board, they were already reporting to us the very next day, “Oh my gosh, we already started saving our tabs for next year.” Everyone was just so excited about these tabs.

Tracey Weldy (19:39): It’s amazing, because it costs nothing to anybody!

Stormy Bell (19:43): So they convert it for funds, how much is a tab actually worth?

Tracey Weldy (19:50): It depends on what the price of aluminum is when you turn them in. I do know, a rough estimate of the tabs that we took down last year, I figured out was like $756. That cost nobody anything, because all they had to do was turn their tabs in.

Stormy Bell (20:10): It gets not just Canton or Troy, you’re talking counties are getting involved in this.

Tracey Weldy (20:17): Correct.

Michelle Ward (20:18): Yes.

Tracey Weldy (20:19): It benefits not just our kids, not kids battling cancer, but all the kids that have to use Geisinger Danville Medical Center and need to stay at the Ronald McDonald House.

Stormy Bell (20:32): Wow. That’s cool.

Michelle Ward (20:35): It is pretty cool.

Stormy Bell (20:37): That’s just really cool. Let’s see, you’ve mentioned this a couple of times, but can you tell me about the Gold Out game, or event? 

Michelle Ward (20:55): I’ll start, but Tracey was the true mastermind behind this football game. Obviously, my son was a member of the Canton football team. We thought it being almost appropriate that we turn a football game into a Gold Out game, where everyone’s wearing gold, everyone’s yellow, everyone is talking about and making donations towards these two families. They were on board with us. Obviously, they were very aware of what was about to happen.

Like Tracey said, open invitation to any child or family that wanted to participate with us that was a childhood cancer survivor, or was a member of the family who had a childhood cancer diagnosis, open invitation. It truly was unbelievable how many came up, had a great time, that live just in our local counties. It was truly unbelievable. So that’s how it started. It was just going to be a football game. We were going to sell a couple t-shirts. We just wanted to raise some money for these kids. No idea what was about to happen.

Stormy Bell (22:26): Got a snicker. Let’s keep this going. There’s more to it.

Michelle Ward (22:30): Yes, Tracey?

Tracey Weldy (22:31): Well, I think I’m a little weird. I wake up with ideas, sometimes. My board, they get-

Michelle Ward (22:39): I just want to say, really, really early, she wakes up with ideas and when those ideas pop into her head, she immediately sends them to us board members in a message. I am not a morning girl. Never have been, never will be, and my phone and I’m talking early, early, ding, ding. My husband is laying in bed next to me going, “Oh, is that Tracey again?” Yep. It’s Tracey.

Tracey Weldy (23:04): I literally wake up with ideas. I don’t know. If I don’t get them out, then I got to get them out right then. Some of them are crazy ideas and everyone has to talk me down and then some of them have a little merit to them. I woke up one morning and I knew that little girl and little boy, I knew they did not have very successful fundraisers on their own with their families.

I was trying to think of ideas, and then I woke up one morning and I’m like, “Well, let’s just look at a football game, because football brings money in.” It just does, especially for our area. I knew I wanted to look at a football game. Well, then I happened to see that Canton was playing Athens at Athens, and these two kiddos are from Athens. Well, Timmy’s a popular boy. Everybody loves Timmy. What’s not to love about Timmy? He’s like the comeback kid. I mean, honestly, he’s what Disney movies are made about. Timmy’s just coming off of his cancer so everybody’s still on the Timmy Ward, supporting him.

Tracey Weldy (24:26): I take opportunity when it’s there and I’m like, “Oh.” So I called Michelle. I told her my idea. She’s like, “Yeah, I think it’s a great idea, reach out.” I reached out to Athens superintendent and he was like, “I think this is a fantastic idea,” and I don’t think he really thought it was going to be as big as it was either.

He got me in touch with their high school principal, and it also happened to be their homecoming. So it made it even that more big. As we got doing this, I was like, “Okay, well, let’s get a little public into this.” I use Facebook for everything. It’s the only thing I use. I don’t know how to make a TikTok video. I know how to watch them, I know to share them, but I don’t know how to make one. Same with Instagram. I know how to look at it, I don’t know how to do any of it.

I’m on Facebook posting daily about different things about it, so I’m getting momentum on it. We have the kids go into Wiggle, which is our old radio station. It’s getting more momentum. Then we have news stations coming in and doing interviews and getting more momentum. Like I said, Michelle said we thought we’d sell a couple t-shirts. Yeah, well, what did we plan Michelle originally?

Michelle Ward (26:00): Oh, my-

Tracey Weldy (26:00): How many t-shirts did we-

Michelle Ward (26:02): I don’t even know how many we actually planned for. I think in our heads, we were like, “Oh, maybe 100 shirts between both schools and both football teams, maybe we’ll get 100 out there or whatever.”

Tracey Weldy (26:16): Yeah. So the schools sent home with every child an order form for the t-shirts. We had sold how many t-shirts?

Michelle Ward (26:30): I’m going to say 950 t-shirts. Yes.

Stormy Bell (26:33): Wow.

Tracey Weldy (26:33): It was crazy. It was a crazy, crazy week. We had penny wars. The school district between Canton and Athens that brought in the most money would get an ice cream party. Well, they did so phenomenal. I mean, how much? I think it was like $5,000 almost that they-

Stormy Bell (26:57): Wow.

Michelle Ward (26:57): In coins.

Tracey Weldy (26:57): In coins, yeah. I mean, it was crazy. I had bruises because we did the big Culligan water things, and they were all filled up, but I didn’t think that through to dump them, so I was using my… Oh, it was crazy. I dumped all those coins into a machine. Thank you. Guthrie Credit Union for letting me house up in that joint for two days, dumping them all in. It was like $5,000 between the two schools.

They did so phenomenal that the Bradford County Dairy Association thought both schools deserved an ice cream party, and both school districts got ice cream for every student and staff member from the Bradford County Dairy Association.

Michelle Ward (27:52): Can I just say, these kids, elementary students are always the first ones on board. Man, they are on it from the get-go.

Tracey Weldy (27:59): Oh, yeah, they love it. Yeah.

Michelle Ward (28:01): It is amazing. These kids were promised an ice cream. I mean, seriously, you get an ice cream cone or an ice cream sandwich if you win this. Holy Hannah, you would’ve thought we were going to give them a new car.

Tracey Weldy (28:16): Car!

Michelle Ward (28:17): Yeah.

Tracey Weldy (28:20): There was a homecoming parade and we had past cancer childhood survivors in this homecoming parade as well. I’ll tell that story afterwards. Our little girl who passed away, she actually was an honorary queen. Yeah, and the little boy, he’s actually not so little anymore and he’s going to be ringing the bell in October, he was our honorary king. It was just such a special, magical night. I don’t think I will have another night like that night in my entire life.

Michelle Ward (29:03): Never, never.

Tracey Weldy (29:03): The game itself brought in probably $25,000, approximately.

Michelle Ward (29:09): Correct.

Tracey Weldy (29:09): With everything, with donations at the door, with shirts being sold. We-

Michelle Ward (29:16): Our penny war.

Tracey Weldy (29:18): Penny war, the decals. You wanted us to touch base on that. My daughter’s from Troy and she played soccer and one of the moms said, “Cora’s very involved in this special football game. We should be doing something too to support our Troy student that’s helping to put on this game. How about our football players put decals on their helmets?” So it started with Troy. They were purchasing decals for their helmets to wear the night of this football game.

They were actually playing Towanda. It took off from there. Towanda found out, then Wyalusing found out, then Southern Tioga found out. Northern Tioga found out. They were all calling us, wanting to wear these decals on their helmets the night of this football game to show their support for their peers who have battled or will battle, and that they were there for them.

Michelle Ward (30:26): Yeah. It was amazing. It was absolutely amazing. Every tiny little tidbit of that game, just every little detail, things that we didn’t even plan for that just happened, every single detail of that evening was absolutely amazing. If you didn’t walk out of that high school football game feeling something, there was something wrong because it was truly mind-blowing. It was mind-blowing.

Tracey Weldy (30:56): Yeah. It was something to be seen.

Michelle Ward (31:00): Correct.

Stormy Bell (31:02): Wow. I almost don’t want to ask anymore questions. You just blew me away with all that.

Michelle Ward (31:08): It was an amazing night.

Stormy Bell (31:09): That’s amazing.

Michelle Ward (31:10): Yeah. It was amazing. We had a balloon release at half-time where people could purchase balloons and go out onto the football field and release them with their families. It was unbelievable.

Stormy Bell (31:25): Wow.

Tracey Weldy (31:33): There’s no way that you can go through childhood cancer and not have a little PTSD. I mean, it’s a traumatic event. One of the first things the doctors said to us when my daughter was considered no evidence of disease was get everyone in the family into some counseling. I’m like, “Well, we’re fine, but whatever.” I had my daughter see a counselor, she’s a very popular counselor in our area and does well with kids.

After this Gold Out game, she said to me, and one of our participants, now she’s not going to tell me who the participant is, but one of our childhood cancer survivors who participated in this parade, this counselor stressed to me how important and how healing this game was for her patient.

Stormy Bell (32:31): Wow.

Tracey Weldy (32:32): I was able to piece together who it was later, but I do know, the family has expressed to me how much she needed that recognition of what she went through.

Stormy Bell (32:46): Amazing.

Tracey Weldy (32:47): So, yeah, it just kept going. The positives of the game just kept going.

Michelle Ward (32:54): They did, they did.

Stormy Bell (32:57): Now, is this something you would do again, or do you think this was just organic, and it was just a one time, and can’t be replicated?

Tracey Weldy (33:05): I don’t think that game can ever be replicated. Athens has approached us to do another game this year. That was in 2019. We had COVID, we couldn’t go to football games and we could go to football games, but we still weren’t. This year, it looks like things are going to be normal, I hope.

Michelle Ward (33:32): Those exact moments and that game, I don’t feel like will ever be replicated. I mean, we can do things based on that game, but I think Tracey and I both know that game, those moments will never be the same. We can’t do that over. We love all the support. We love that people are coming to us asking if they can do something like a Gold Out game to raise funds or help families in the area. But that game? Never. Will never happen again.

Stormy Bell (34:07): Magical. It was just magical.

Tracey Weldy (34:08): It was. All the pieces came together and it was needed. It was needed in the community. It just will never work that way again.

Stormy Bell (34:20): Amazing.

Tracey Weldy (34:21): We’re okay with that. We know that and we don’t want to replace it because that’s our special, magical moment too, but we are working on doing something different. Athens would like to do it again, and we are working with them in trying to figure out a way that they can have an annual game that will bring some hype and be something that everyone looks forward to.

Stormy Bell (34:48): Oh, awesome. I’ll try to get home for that. All right. Now here’s a fun question, or at least I think it’s a fun question. Can you tell our listeners today about a blooper or something that didn’t go as planned and what you learned from it? Tracey?

Tracey Weldy (35:10): Well, I said the t-shirts, but really after I got telling you the story, it was having kids fill up those Culligan waters because I couldn’t even lift them. So yeah, I would have to say it was probably using Culligan water for money collection. Do not do that.

Michelle Ward (35:32): We have now downscaled not using those big water jugs anymore. We’ll use plastic containers that are much smaller, and easier to haul around and we’ll gladly sit more out. You can fill them all up, but it’s much easier.

Stormy Bell (35:49): We’re not going to get bruises again.

Tracey Weldy (35:51): No, no. We’re not doing that.

Michelle Ward (35:53): Tracey was covered in bruises.

Tracey Weldy (35:55): Not doing that again.

Stormy Bell (35:57): Okay. Now we’re at the point in the interview where I give you the floor, so you can love, just love on Kids Can’t Fight Cancer Alone and tell our friends why they should get involved.

Tracey Weldy (36:12): Who wants to go first?

Michelle Ward (36:15): Tracey, go ahead.

Tracey Weldy (36:21): For me, I love our families and I love our kids, and the most important thing I think with our nonprofit is others being involved helps me to help them. The more that other people get involved and participate in our nonprofit gives me the ability to help them more.

I do not want families worrying about how they’re going to pay their bills, if their job’s going to be okay. They’re worried about keeping their child alive. That’s the most important thing and I don’t want them thinking about anything else. I want them to know that we’re here for them and that we’re going to support them and they don’t need to worry about anything else. The rest, we’ll take care of it later. The more people get involved, the more we have the ability to help them.

Michelle Ward (37:25): Yes, I totally agree with everything Tracey said. For my family being involved in this, obviously it started as a way to give back, to help other people like those people helped us, but it has transformed into something bigger than even Tracey and I even can fathom as far as helping people, helping families. Basic needs, basic life, what we all require and wish for, that’s where we are. We just want to be able to help you, and it sounds like such a silly thing.

We want people to be as passionate about it as we are because we really care about it so much. These families are struggling to keep their child alive. One of the biggest fears as a parent, I’m only going to speak for myself, but would be to outlive my children in any shape or form. Knowing that families are going through this on a daily basis and they’re worried about putting gas in their car to get them to treatments. I don’t want them to have to think about anything else. My family and I want to be there for them and help them any possible way we can help them.

Stormy Bell (38:59): Awesome. How can our friends listening today connect with you?

Tracey Weldy (39:07): Facebook.

Michelle Ward (39:08): Facebook.

Stormy Bell (39:09): Facebook? Just find you on Facebook.

Tracey Weldy (39:10): Because we don’t know how to do anything else.

Stormy Bell (39:13): Oh, that’s right. You mentioned that. Then I will include that link in our show notes so they can go back and find you.

Michelle Ward (39:20): Thank you.

Stormy Bell (39:21): Michelle and Tracey, thank you so much for coming on The Art of Volunteering today, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. It brings me home a little bit.

Tracey Weldy (39:32): Awesome. Thank you.

Michelle Ward (39:33): Thank you so much for having us.

Stormy Bell (39:35): You’re welcome. I look forward to seeing all of our listeners on our next Art of Volunteering podcast, as we continue to connect volunteers worldwide. Have a great day. Bye-bye.

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