Apr 30, 2022
(From left) Ruth McKinney, Pauline Bowers and Cathy Tellish sort potatoes during a recent Altoona Food Bank day. Mirror photo by Holly Claycomb
Volunteers are integral to many organizations, so many, in fact, that an argument could be made that volunteers make the world go round.
In its most recent “Volunteering in America Report,” AmeriCorps reported that Pennsylvania has an estimated 3.5 million volunteers who contribute 341 million hours of service, estimated to be worth $8.2 billion.
Without volunteers, food banks would close, humane societies would struggle and even the famed Smithsonian museums would be forced to close or spend a good portion of its budget to hire workers, as each year, 6,000 volunteers work on-site at Smithsonian facilities and another 7,500 participate in projects online, according to the museum’s website.
A little closer to home, hundreds if not thousands of area residents can be found pitching in just about everywhere.
Giving of their time and energy, volunteers pick up trash, ring the bell for the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign and man the concession stands at school sporting events. They’re on hand for various church and community outreach programs and, in rural areas, volunteers are called upon in an emergency as volunteer firefighters and ambulance personnel.
While volunteers come from all walks of life, in all ages and abilities, the one common denominator is the desire to help others, stay busy and make new friends — even if those friends live across the country and only call when they need someone to talk to.
Sue Davis gives her time and her listening abilities to Contact Altoona, an outreach in which people can call just to talk about pretty much anything. The program also has volunteers who call to check on area residents, perhaps to remind them to take medication or just to see how they’re doing.
A retired social worker who has been blind since she was 25, Davis said she got started with the organization about five years ago because her husband saw a billboard about the program.
“I was retired, and he wanted me to have something to do, so I wasn’t sitting around waiting to die,” she said with a laugh.
While she really enjoys the work now, she wasn’t thrilled when he first urged her to try volunteering there.
After he mentioned it, though, she thought about her ability to talk to strangers.
“I talked to a wrong number for two hours one night,” she said. “My husband said, ‘Who was that you were talking to?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’”
With his urging, she called in to Contact Altoona — first accidentally to the helpline — but then made the right connection, completed the training and has been working four-hour shifts several days a week ever since.
A listening ear
Davis said the service is a “warm line” or a “listening line” and there are a variety of reasons people call in.
“People call us because they’re lonely, they’ve got psychological issues, they call to get something off their chest,” she said. “They just need someone to talk to.”
Volunteers normally work a four-hour shift, with one person working on inbound calls, while another makes reassurance or outbound calls.
During the height of the pandemic, Davis said, “A lot of people called because they were scared, some people called because they had loved ones that died, some people called because they were mad. A lot of people blamed China.”
Calls are supposed to be limited to 15 or 20 minutes, but Davis has had one that went longer than an hour. She doesn’t mind, but it does prevent someone else from calling in, she said.
“We can use our discretion,” she said. “Some people just really need to talk.”
People sign up for reassurance calls.
“Some we call once a week, a couple times a week, some people we call every day,” she said.
Most of the reassurance calls are to people who are older, but there are also calls to younger clients, ones in their 30s and 40s, she said.
Davis said Contact Altoona could use more volunteers; she’s worked double shifts at times.
The rewards are tremendous, she said, noting that she often gets thanked for taking the time to listen.
One caller said she appreciated the extra time Davis gave her, because she didn’t have anyone else to talk to.
Another caller dials in every day, sometimes more than once, Davis said.
Davis, who grew up in the Philadelphia region, went to college and earned a degree in accounting, then found out that she hated accounting.
So she went back to school and got a degree in social work, she said. “I just loved it.”
Despite being retired, Davis said she volunteers to keep her mind active, though she also cooks, listens to audiobooks and is up moving around more now that she is retired.
“I’m busier,” she said, but feels the listening line is an important part of her life.
She considers the people she talks to as friends.
“They’re people I’ve never met, but I’ve talked to them on the phone,” she said.
There are a few times when she didn’t have any callers during a shift, but those days are rare, though, as Contact Altoona is listed on the National Alliance on Mental Illness website.
Contact Altoona only makes calls to Blair County residents, but volunteers take calls from everywhere, including out of state.
One caller from North Dakota told Davis that it was 4 degrees below zero.
“I’m so glad I don’t live in North Dakota,” Davis said.
“One guy said ‘First thing I need to know is where the hell is Altoona?,’” Davis said with a laugh.
She’s also taken calls from college students who were away from home.
“They’re lonely,” she said. Some may have done something or had something done to them that they don’t really want to share with families, she said, adding that it’s not always bad. “Sometimes it’s something good,” she said, but because the callers remain anonymous, they can share with the volunteers things they can’t share with their families.
“You never know what you’re going to get when you answer the phone,” Davis said. “It can be anything.”
Providing for those in need
Volunteers at the Altoona Food Bank also never know what the day will bring, but said they look forward to providing for the community.
The food bank is a community outreach program that is 100% volunteer driven, so without volunteers it wouldn’t exist, organizers said.
On a recent Friday morning, about a half dozen volunteers, most retired, gathered and packed food for 16 families and, for those clients who drove to the location, volunteers also helped load the food into vehicles.
Volunteering to help others not only feels good, said Jim Rozier, it’s “one of the keys to longevity.”
“I enjoy it,” he said, when asked why he chose to volunteer.
His sentiment was echoed by everyone working that day, including Russ Kurbanov, a new volunteer and one of the few “young” ones, said Rene Homer, volunteer coordinator.
Kurbanov said he started at the food bank through a community service program, but when his hours were fulfilled, he decided to stay on as a regular volunteer.
Working with everyone is fun and, as many of the volunteers are over 60 and into their 70s and 80s, there is a need for younger volunteers, Homer said.
According to a 2020 study published in the “Journal of Happiness Studies,” volunteering is a great way for people to strengthen their communities and a unique way for people to improve their own happiness.
Local residents said they can attest to the benefits of volunteering without taking part in a study, though, as they experience the benefits firsthand.
Cathy Tellish enjoys her work at the food bank not only because she is helping others, but she makes friends, too.
“It’s really nice to see people,” she said. “We have a good time as a group.”
Tellish said some of the volunteers get together outside of the food bank, too. They play bingo and have become friends by working together.
Talking while sorting and packing potatoes, onions and other foodstuffs, the volunteers share travel plans, photos of their pets and grandchildren and talk about taking care of houseplants, among the many varied topics.
“In a way, this place saved my life,” said Rozier, who has been with the food bank for about 20 years.
The Army veteran, who served 23 years and “ran the mess hall,” is also a railroad retiree.
But after retirement, he found himself at loose ends.
He said he found himself “going to a bar and drinking until I said to myself, ‘what are you doing?”
He volunteered at the food bank and never looked back.
At 78, Rozier said he’s “amazed I lived this long” and credits his volunteer efforts for his active lifestyle.
“This is what God wanted us to do … help others,” he said. “It’s wonderful to help others.”
Because of his familiarity with maintaining and operating mess halls in the Army, Rozier is in charge of ordering food for the outreach, and is a proponent for organizing everything in its proper place.
The volunteers all have a part to play on Food Bank days and when it’s busy, “we just keep moving,” Homer said.
Sally Wojtarowicz said she came on board as a volunteer about seven years ago, after her husband passed away.
“I looked for something to do,” she said, and came upon the volunteer opportunity at the food bank.
For Ruth McKinney, the idea of helping people appealed to her. The bonus is that she also has made a lot of friends.
“I enjoy coming here,” she said. “There’s a lot of good people here.”
The food bank isn’t McKinney’s only volunteer endeavor. She used to help out at UPMC Altoona until COVID-19 hit and volunteering was cut back.
‘Doing what we can’
Linda Noonan said the food bank and its volunteers are important.
She remembers back decades ago when people had a hard time getting enough food for their families.
“I think it still is like that for some people,” she said. “We want to do what we can for people.”
For Davis on the Contact Altoona line, that could involve looking up cleaning tips online while talking on the phone.
“I had one woman call me and asked if I knew how to clean a self-cleaning oven. I tried to find the instructions online,” she said.
Davis said a lot of people call and complain about the weather, when it’s snowing, but “others call and say ‘isn’t it a beautiful day?’”
Knowing they are making a difference in someone’s life is a good feeling, volunteers said.
“It’s very satisfying work. … But I don’t consider it work,” Homer said.
Those looking to volunteer are urged to contact the organization that piques their interest. For senior citizens, the local Retired Seniors Volunteer Program may be able to help make a match. RSVP is grant-funded by AmeriCorps Seniors federal program and partners with local nonprofit organizations to help recruit volunteers. The local RSVP office can be reached at 814-506-5267.
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