By Kate Wendleton
After stepping down from day-to-day management of The Five O’Clock Club, I have been able to spend more time pursuing some other important interests of mine, particularly volunteering. I have always emphasized the importance of volunteering to Five O’Clock Club members, not just to expand one’s experience and circle of contacts, but also to create a well-rounded and meaningful life, so I’d like to share some of my experiences here.
People usually imagine retirement — if they imagine it at all — as one big lump of time. But 50 is different from 70, 80, and 90, just as being 10 years old is very different from being 30, 40, and 50. Each of the segments over 50 can be envisioned and planned for. At my age, many people choose to travel, play bridge or tennis, or take courses. But over the years, I had already immersed myself in cooking classes, horticulture classes, and art history classes. I have had more than my fair share of travel and have been active in sports such as hiking, skiing, squash, white-water canoeing, and horseback riding. I decided it was time to give back, but on a really personal level.
It’s a sad fact that 85 percent of nursing home residents get no visitors at all.
In the distant past in Philadelphia, I had volunteered with United Way for 12 years, as well as with the YMCA. I was also very active in the cultural area, volunteering with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Walnut Street Theater Art Gallery, and the Concerto Soloists, a chamber music group. When I lived in New York, I volunteered at NYU hospital for two years, visiting about 50 people every Sunday. So what should I do now?
While running The Five O’Clock Club, my main volunteer outlet for the past several years has been working with young African-American men who have aged out of foster care. My husband and I had already raised three children, and we founded our not-for-profit, Remington Achievers, in order to extend some of the advantages our children had enjoyed to youths who had not been so privileged. Being with these young men every Saturday always took my mind off work better than any vacation could.
Six years later, we are still involved with five (or sometimes six) of the young men, who are now all in their mid-twenties. We see them regularly and still offer the same kind of guidance and help that any parent would provide. We love these young men and want to have a lifelong relationship with them. We are thrilled when we get to hold their young children. We know their life partners or girlfriends. We no longer view this as a volunteer activity, but consider them family and imagine them being a part of our long-term future.
My largest volunteer effort now is visiting residents in nursing homes, as well as hospice patients who have six months or less to live. We have lengthy visits (an hour or more) with about five people per week who are assigned to us, and see an additional hundred people by walking around the nursing homes with our dog and our stash of Lindt chocolate truffles. It’s a sad fact that 85 percent of nursing home residents get no visitors at all. Perhaps their children live far away, or perhaps they have outlived their family and friends. So they are happy to see us.
The residents love to pet our dog, an 8-year-old Whippet named Molly, whom we got permission to bring (with the necessary paperwork from our veterinarian, etc.) after we had spent time in the nursing homes and the staff had gotten to know us. Molly knows when she is working and allows many residents to pet her at the same time. Those with dementia or Alzheimer’s tend to respond well to Molly and seem to be more present and coherent when they are relating to her.
We have given out hundreds of Beanie Babies so that residents can have something soft to touch in between our visits. They enjoy choosing from the different animals, and are also grateful for the chocolate we bring. We always check with the staff to find out who is allowed to have the real chocolate versus the sugar-free version for diabetics — and we always make sure we give chocolate and Beanie Babies to the staff as well!
To round out my volunteer work, I expect soon to starting tutoring West Africans who are new to this country and either want to learn English or prepare for their GED.
These days, a great accomplishment for me is when a dementia patient shows some significant signs of cognition or joy, or when a young man passes a test on his way to becoming an airline mechanic, or when my 90-year-old father is happy with his life despite having lost his wife of 68 years two years ago.
Just as most jobs are created for people, good volunteer work is as well.
Just as most jobs are created for people, good volunteer work is as well. Ads are a way of thinking about certain organizations or fields of work. They are basically a form of job-search research. If you are looking for a meaningful volunteer opportunity, don’t be discouraged if some organizations you contact are already swamped with volunteers; there are other places that will be delighted to have you. You are unique, and you will find something that appeals to you and makes the most of your capacity to give. Throughout my life, I have gained excellent experience through my volunteer work that has helped me in my career. So I would urge you to volunteer now. Then, put it on your resume. Work is work, whether you are paid to do it or not. You don’t have to note that you were not paid!
As the Dalai Lama says, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Kate Wendleton is the founder of The Five O’Clock Club.