Everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
People come to volunteering from different places: places of solitude, spirituality, empathy, and altruism. Perhaps we volunteer to seek purpose, to forge a community, or to find joy. Perhaps we do so to share the experience with our loved ones. No matter our intention, the experience of volunteering is inherently rooted in love – both in giving and receiving.
Giving your time to better the lives of others is one of the most profound expressions of love in our world. This February, as we near Valentine’s Day and all the chocolate hearts and red roses that accompany it, we are bringing this phenomenon that is love into our Spotlight. We asked volunteers to tell stories of how they experienced love, found love, or shared love through service with Boston Cares.
Last Monday night, a couple blocks from the shops of Newbury St., five people gathered around a table to play Rummy in a fluorescent-lit staff break room. Weather was discussed, Thin Mints were shared, and five unlikely friends from across the generations came together to play a card game at Hale House, a residential care facility for seniors. Two of those volunteers were Jenni Mehl and Greta Lofgren. Jenni is a Volunteer Leader with Boston Cares, and understands the deep power of service, even if on the surface it appears as simple as a hour-long card game. Jenni shared her understanding of love in the context of volunteering: “It’s caring for someone to bring them happiness even if just during that moment. They say that one of the best ways to make yourself happy is to bring happiness to someone else, and I find volunteering and showing others I care for them can bring a lot of happiness.”
Greta just recently joined Boston Cares in September, and her dedication to service is undeniable. When asked what love means to her she defined it as “an unending passion for something, and how you show your love, and how you need to be loved in return, is unique to each individual.” Greta herself finds her unique experience of love through giving back and making things better than they were when she started.
Though volunteering often fosters connections with those you are serving, it also can help nurture relationships with those you are serving alongside. Vanessa Santos joined Boston Cares just over a year ago. When asked about her experience she expressed the joy she found being able to serve with her daughter Lana:
“Philanthropy has always been part of my life growing up, and now I get to do amazing community work with my 11-year old, who has tagged along on every Boston Cares volunteering event I’ve been to. Whether helping at the Food Pantry, Clean-up at the Charles or knocking on a Veteran’s door, the sense of gratitude and fulfillment is amazing, and to know that my girl feels proud to be there with me side-by-side.”
Boston Cares often receives requests by parents to serve with their children, and although many of our projects have an age limit, we do offer multiple opportunities for families to serve together. This January we had over 650 volunteers at our annual MLK Day of Service. People of all ages came together to create tools for our ESOL partners in remembrance and respect for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Events also include Family Volunteer Day in September, and goCreates, where families can come to our office and work on table-top projects. These opportunities offer ways for families, especially with younger children, to volunteer together and to introduce a love for service at an early age.
The Elwy family is one of those families. Whether making ESOL flashcards at MLK Day, sorting through baby clothes at Room To Grow, or distributing food at the Red Cross Food Pantry, the Elwy family has done it. Rani Elwy, wife to Sherin Elwy, and mother of Ben, Lucy (who is currently serving as a City Year service member at the Tobin K-8 School in Roxbury), and Charlotte Elwy, spoke to the significance volunteering has held for their family:
“Volunteering is the one, and only, activity that all of our family members can do together. Through Boston Cares, we’ve been able to participate in so many worthwhile causes that have also brought us closer together as a family. Towards the end of each week, one of our three children will ask, “What volunteer activity are we doing this weekend?”. It’s now become a family value, and part of our family culture, to volunteer with Boston Cares.”
Volunteering is often introduced to us by our loved ones, and through their eyes we can experience a new love for service. Prassuna Budlong was an active Boston Cares volunteer before her husband, Erik, began volunteering as well. The two could be described as a Boston Cares power couple. Erik shared of his wife, “The fact that I also started volunteering with Boston Cares makes her very happy.” While Prassuna stretches her commitments all over our Calendar Program, Erik, the subject of our last Volunteer Spotlight, found a home in our ESOL Corps. “In the [Gilbert Albert Community Center] conversation groups, I love seeing the students making progress and having fun at the same time,” he said. Both Prassuna and Erik, whether volunteering together or apart, have made service a staple in their lives and have incorporated it into their day-to-day.
No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another.” – Charles Dickens
Even when volunteering alone, however, volunteers at Boston Cares can produce enough love for two. A name well known in the world of Boston volunteering is Theresa Lam. Whether leading volunteers at the New England Center and Home for Veterans, serving meals at Women’s Lunch Place, or selecting books at Prison Book Project, Theresa is a consistent volunteer who always gives her entire heart to whatever project she is focusing on. Theresa’s experience of volunteering is one of the utmost humble and altruistic sort. When asked why she does it, Theresa quickly responded:
“I’ve learned that by bringing positive emotions, by showing you care, or with just a simple gesture like smiling, you can break tension-producing patterns. The positivity is infectious, not only do you share it with others – but you get it back, from other volunteers and guests. Someone once asked me: ‘why do you do it?’ I answered ‘It’s the smiles I get from all the guests, and the chance to de-stress. I’m happy at the end of the day – It’s a win-win situation.”
Love cannot remain by itself – it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action, and that action is service.” – Mother Teresa
Whether you volunteer to share an experience with your loved ones, or volunteer to build new connections, or simply because it brings you joy, volunteering can be a incredible catalyst for love. This month we remember the moments that have inspired and motivated us, and hope that we have shared some moments to inspire others as well. This February we ask you to look past the idea of love sold on Valentines’ Day, and look for love in unfamiliar places.
May your volunteering bring you to places that both challenge and comfort you; places of community, purpose, joy, and above all else, love.
From all of us at Boston Cares, Happy Valentine’s Day.
Sign up to volunteer at https://www.bostoncares.org/