“It’s not for me.” “I’m too busy.” “I’ll volunteer when I’m retired.” All of these responses (excuses?) are familiar to me. Because, at one time or another, I hid behind each one of them.
I never felt I was good at time management, so how could I possibly take on volunteering when I was working full-time? Sure, I could multitask at work, because I had to. But did I enjoy working that way? Not even a little.
To me, time management meant working eight hours a day, worrying about work for the next eight hours, sleeping and dreaming about work for the following six hours, spending the next two hours showering, eating breakfast and reading the newspaper, then repeating the process. For decades, I functioned – notice I didn’t say lived – this way. I had tunnel vision of the worst variety.
Then I retired.
The novelty of not having to rise at a particular hour is intoxicating. Not that I indulge myself very often. After all, I had 34 years of 6 a.m. alarm clock reminders that had trained my body to get up with the sun. I confess that now, after two years of retirement, I occasionally sleep till 8:30 or even 9 a.m. But then, of course, I feel guilty. I’m Jewish after all.
Not long after I retired, I got an email from Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman of Chabad Richmond notifying me about an upcoming six-week Jewish Learning Institute course. I think it was called The Jewish Course of Why. Since I’m an inveterate question-asker and perpetually curious, I took the bait. And I was hooked.
Somewhere between the questions and the answers, the good rabbi saw an opportunity to recruit me for some volunteering. I may have casually mentioned that I’d just taught myself to bake challah using YouTube. Next thing I know, I get a call from Grace Jampolsky (“the Challah Whisperer,” as I call her), asking if I’d like to help bake challah for the bi-weekly Light of Shabbat meals that Chabad Richmond delivers to the elderly in Richmond. Sounded like a good thing to do. And who doesn’t love the smell of freshly baked bread?
From there, I volunteered to help pack the Light of Shabbat boxes and occasionally deliver them. This gave me the opportunity to visit and shmooze with some seniors, some of whom I already knew through my parents. We talked about family and books, everything and anything. It was a blessing for both of us.
About six months into retirement, I realized I still had way too much free time on my hands, and needed to do something useful. Something outside myself. So, I contacted B.C. Children’s Hospital, hoping to volunteer as a “baby cuddler,” not realizing that there’s a long waitlist to do that. But, as soon as the hospital’s volunteer coordinator saw my resumé, she offered me a volunteer position in the Family Support and Resource Centre. After all, what else would a librarian want to do in retirement, but jump right back into working in a library! Naively, I didn’t think to mention in my interview that I’d like anything but a library position. Nevertheless, I gave them the year’s commitment that they asked for and then resigned. Being an infrequently used part of the hospital, the centre didn’t provide the stimulation I was hoping for. I wanted to make more of an impact in my volunteering.
Soon after, Rabbi Baitelman asked if I’d be interested in volunteering with Chabad Richmond’s Israel Connect program, in which local retirees tutor Israeli high school students in English once a week, via Skype. It sounded like fun, so naturally I said yes. If memory serves me correctly, it was about two-and-a-half minutes later that he asked me if I would consider coordinating the Israel Connect program in Richmond. He had me at “Would you be interested….”
The rabbi knows that I have a background in writing and editing, so it wasn’t long before he asked for my help writing press releases and marketing pieces for Chabad Richmond. Writing is my happy place, so I was delighted to pitch in. It has only snowballed since then, and I’m thrilled to report that I love my volunteer activities, and I’m always open to considering new ones.
All of this is to say that there is life after retirement – volunteering has been enormously rewarding.
At its essence, volunteering is about saying yes to what you want to do, and saying no to the rest. And the yes, well, it’s just so darn sweet! Knowing that Jewish seniors are enjoying the challah I bake, and that the short visits we have might be the only human interaction they encounter in a week – that’s why my heart is drawn to do these things. Believe me, as a volunteer, working with people, you get way more than you give.
And Israel Connect? It’s the best spent 30 to 45 minutes of my week. Helping an Israeli teen improve their English so they can get into university or pursue a career that requires English proficiency – that makes my heart sing. And, we have fun. With each different student (all girls, so far), I’ve managed to make a connection and form a bond. After each week’s official tutoring is finished, we talk: about their hobbies, plans for the future, our families, travel, everything. From week to week, I notice not only improvements in their English, but a relaxation that comes from forming a real intergenerational friendship. I hope to visit my students when we travel to Israel soon.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the bits and pieces of volunteering I did while I was still working full-time as a librarian and communications officer at Richmond Public Library. I did manage to squeeze in some fundraising and communications work to help promote the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada’s annual Gutsy Walk fundraiser.
In a much more humbling capacity, I was also part of a program about eight years ago, called Feed the Hungry, in which a bunch of volunteers from Ahavat Olam made and served lunch to Downtown Eastside (DTES) residents on a regular basis. And, for several years, I volunteered, along with my husband, brother-in-law and/or friends, serving Christmas lunch at the Salvation Army Harbour Light Mission in the DTES.
For a couple of years, I was a volunteer board member with the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library, as well as being the B.C. Library Association representative for the West Coast Book Award Prize Society. All of them together were growing and learning experiences of the highest order.
We guard our free time so rabidly, we forget that part of why we’re put on this earth is to help others. The satisfaction and joy that comes from doing something outside ourselves, something for a higher purpose, is indescribable. Believing is seeing. But don’t just take my word for it.
Shelley Civkin is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review, and currently writes a bi-weekly column about retirement for the Richmond News.