I have had such an awesome response to my last newsletter on volunteering this holiday season, I thought I would let you know how it’s going. But first, a little history on how volunteering became such a big part of who I am.
Snapfinger Road, commonly known as highway 155 in Lithonia, Georgia, was located, as they say, “in the sticks”. There were only a few ways to socialize back in those days. We did not live in a neighborhood, so friends would need to come to visit or I would go on “spend the night” adventures. As I got older friends who had their parents’ cars, there were football games, and jamming with the band in the basement. Those came and went, but one group has always been my core and my heart, and I found them at the Decatur Presbyterian Church.
The DPC Youth Group, when not getting stoned and sending toilet paper rolls flying into our beloved youth leaders’ front yard trees, were required to do some good in the world. Call it payback, call it a grand mistake on our leaders’ part, but the day I visited Whitten Center in Clinton, SC, my life changed.
Whitten Center was advertised as a place for seniors to follow rainbows into the next life, but that was not what we experienced there. I am not positive what happened, maybe we went to the wrong Whitten Center, but when we arrived there were no happy seniors to pinch us on the cheeks. There was, however, a camp filled with extremely disabled young and old people who were out of their minds to see us come rolling-up.
WE WERE OUT OF OUR LEAGUE.
Our leaders huddled like the Rams on the fifty-yard line and weighed out whether we could handle this experience, and even worse, could our new friends handle us driving away in our beautiful rented church bus. The decision, if not a clear one, was made to stay and kick some ass, do some good, and damn the torpedoes if we failed.
My first moment of volunteer service was spent with a lovely young lady who was suffering from hydrocephalus. Her head was so huge that it required a trough-like mechanism to get around. My mission that day was a simple boat ride, nothing more. My new friend was scared stiff, but she was also so excited that she grinned from ear to ear as we paddled out into the deep on a perfect day in South Carolina. She had no idea the lake was only three feet deep, but to her, it was as deep as the freedom she clearly felt that day.
I was young, I did not understand what was happening to me in that moment. I paddled and made silly Robert jokes as we made our way around the lake. It was so lovely. Thinking back, I would’ve liked to have been a bird in a tree watching this. Sixteen-year-old Robert Downs yucking it up with a severely handicapped young lady paddling around a lake enjoying every second. I realized I had the capacity to see past the exterior of a person and stare directly at their heart, even though I did not understand that ability until much later in my life.
Our leaders, as part of their decision to stay, required that we all meet after to decompress and to share our experiences. Meeting together was an excellent gauge to see if anyone in our group was freaking out. The decision to stay was an absolute feather in our leaders’ cap. So we rolled (toilet-papered) their houses when we got home that weekend after a few beers and some wanderlust time in our big field under a midnight sky.
We were kids. We had no business being in this position of responsibility with such severely handicapped individuals, but I am here to tell you it was our proudest moment and it bound us. That day, we grew up a little. Some of us processed the experience by openly weeping, others found incredible strength in providing love to those who received very little.
The kids that provided service to these special people with me that day have been my friends for going on fifty years. I love them now as much as I loved them then.
As my life rolled on I got lost for a while. I found drugs and alcohol and left home way too early. I eventually found my way and when the words “be of service” were spoken to me again, I related. I thought to myself, “I can do that, I know how to do that.” Little did I know the gifts I would receive in return.
The source of my greatest gifts lately have come from the Veterans Hospital here in Long Beach. After weeks of pokes and prods, my official position at the VA is: “Robert Downs: a person who pushes Veterans from one treatment to another. “
It’s no small task, the facility is huge.
I am, by far, the youngest volunteer. I am also the only volunteer that has not served in our armed forces and/or is not under court order to be there. This makes me an extremely odd bird to most of the folks I meet at the VA.
It is also cause for my most rewarding moments.
Sam, an older volunteer, was giving me the “stink-eye” one day, “Ya know you can get a job here if you volunteer long enough, lots of opportunities at the VA.” I calmly say, “I have a job”, and smile. After a few more weird looks, I attempt to explain and even hand him my business card, but he still does not believe me. I move on.
“Robert, you have a pick up at PT.”
The most rewarding experience I have each day happens in a millisecond.
Pushing a wheelchair down a long hall, a Marine Crew Chief asks me “So what part of the service were you in, Robert?” as I am wheeling him back from his PT appointment. I reply, “I did not serve in the military.” “So, what are you doing here?” he asks. “I just want to show my support, you guys are the best and I cannot even begin to understand your sacrifices and service, so I do this.”
Then it happens, a millisecond of complete silence in our conversation. I appreciate you. I respect you, but mostly, I am grateful to you, hangs silently in the air for just a moment. I have no reason to be here except to serve you.
“So what’s the craziest thing you ever saw?” I ask, and we wheel on.
These men and women are fascinating to me. I have heard stories about how to smoke pot while on duty. Stories about what happened to a guy when he went face to face with a Bengal tiger in the bush. It is amazing, every day I volunteer, the men and women amaze me.
Sam and the VA have now figured out that I am indeed a working photographer and not in need of a job. They have put me in charge of teaching the photography class. I can’t believe it…
HOW LUCKY CAN I GET?