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RSW Living Magazine

All Volunteer Army - Giving back, thousands of opportunities, finding very special people

May 22, 2017 12:27PM ● By Kevin

I have never been much for volunteering. Somebody wants you to do something, they should pay for it. But now that I have reached that ripe old age that some call “retirement,” I have been reconsidering the volunteer idea from a different perspective.

And this is probably why “volunteering,” sometimes called “paying back” to the community, is such a big thing in Southwest Florida. There are countless volunteers in our area, an army of us, in fact, many well past the normal working age but still making significant contributions to the many organizations depending on volunteer labor, such as the Harry Chapin Food Bank, animal shelters, Habitat for Humanity, schools, the Salvation Army…and the list goes on and on.

As it turned out, I was to photograph a Nations Association Charities dinner at the Shriner Hall in Fort Myers. The group celebrates its 38-year anniversary in May. Aside from my professional duties, I wanted to talk with volunteers at the dinner, get feedback on why they do such a thing.

I first meet Linda and Kent Yoder, representing the Sanibel Community Church. I watch as they serve food to lines of parents and children seated at indistinguishable tables in the massive hall. There must be a thousand people at this seating; another thousand are outside waiting for the second dinner. “I think it is part of being a true Christian,” Kent Yoder tells me. “The idea that giving is more important than receiving.”

His wife agrees. “It really is more enjoyable giving to others,” she says. “Volunteering in this way allows us to put our Christian beliefs into reality.”

Photo by Terry Allen Williams.

Later on, when they start to hand out gifts, I observe a particularly energetic young woman organizing the kids. Kristi Furrow is filled with an abundance of energy she graciously shares with the children under her charge. She is also with the Sanibel Community Church. “I think it is a lot of fun,” she beams. “It is good for the soul.”

And this seems to be the consensus at the dinner and other similar events I have covered in the past. There is definitely something to be said for the unlikely truism, “it is better to give than to receive.”

I have seen enough―it’s time for me to volunteer for something. I investigate the dozens of opportunities in Southwest Florida, deciding that serving food at a soup kitchen might be up my alley. I head over to the Nations Association offices on Palm Beach Boulevard in Fort Myers, to volunteer, disappointed to find they had stopped their soup kitchen program.

“Catholic Charities is still doing it,” Lucy Shepherd, 85, tells me. Shepherd is a slender, gray-haired lady with a twinkle in her eye. When I tell her I am doing a piece on volunteerism, she pipes up. “I have been volunteering for a long time.”

She explains that while working for Lee County years ago the Rev. Israel Suarez walked in and made a pitch for supporting the Nations Association. “I was so impressed,” she says. “I went right over there and volunteered. And here I am, how many years later?”

And when Lucy is not involved at Nations Association, working with their many programs to aid disadvantaged youth, she is volunteering at Tortuga Elementary School. “I retired from my job many years ago,” she tells me. “But I never retired from volunteering.”

“Why do you do it?” I ask.

“Volunteering keeps you young, “she says. “And when you don’t have to work for money anymore, you can work for love.”

“How do you mean,” I ask.

“The kids repay you with their love. And I can’t think of any greater payment than that.”

Photo by Terry Allen Williams.

So, while I am sorting volunteer opportunities, I am inspired by these amazing people. Money is one thing, I’ve learned, and it is important most of our lives, but when it is no longer the driving force behind our every move, we can find other ways to make our lives meaningful.

“Work for love,” I say to Lucy. “That’s the essence of the whole thing, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she agrees. “That’s what it means to be a volunteer.”

Written by Terry Allen Williams, an itinerant traveler, writer and frequent contributor to TOTI Media.