By Carey and Trevor McLaughlin
I hated my first volunteer job. That’s not a good way to start a blog about volunteering, but please keep reading. In my family, once you were old enough, you became an acolyte at our church a couple times a month. I had to get to church by 8am, ring the church bells, prepare the communion, light the candles on the altar and help the pastor during the service. I complained endlessly to my parents about this: Why did I have to do this? What was the point? It was too early! and so on. But my parents wouldn’t budge. They were active volunteers in our church themselves and in our family, acolyting was what you did at my age. Every Sunday, the same elderly woman was in the church before the service began, sitting in the first pew, watching me light the candles. One Sunday after the church service, while I was helping myself to cookies and juice, this woman approached me, grabbed my hand and told me how beautiful the church looked when I lit the candles. In the movies, this would be the scene where the music would play and the camera would zoom in on me and I would have an epiphany about how my volunteering was changing people’s lives in extraordinary ways. But my volunteering wasn’t changing people’s lives in any big way. It did, however matter to someone. My parents knew the value of volunteering and serving others, even if I couldn’t see it at the time. They knew that touching just one life without expecting anything in return makes a difference in this world and they wanted me to learn that lesson. They also knew that “just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far reaching effects” as the Dalai Lama says.
My mother in law’s ‘pebble’ is cleaning up a pedestrian bridge near her house. For as long as she has lived there, my mother-in-law has cleaned up the litter, the broken glass and trash and has called the city to have them clean the vandalism off of the bridge. At almost 80 years old, she still does this without ever asking for recognition or payback. She is making one small corner of the world more beautiful. The many pedestrians, bikers and children enjoy a clean, beautiful bridge and they are the ripples from her pebble who then go on to also spread beauty and goodness. And those people pass it on to others, who then pass it on, who then pass it on…
“People have to eat” was my grandmother’s blunt and simple answer to why she volunteered for Meals-on-Wheels for over 30 years, finally stopping when she was in her late 80s. I was expecting an answer more along the lines of “I like to help people” but that wasn’t her way. In truth, volunteering meant much more to my grandmother than just providing a hot meal to people. It gave her a purpose and a feeling of gratification that she couldn’t or wouldn’t express. The ripples of her pebble in the water helped others have a hot meal, but actually came back to her and fulfilled her.
So, why volunteer at GiGi’s Playhouse? Why choose GiGi’s as a place that you spend your valuable time when there are so many worthy places to help? Because your ‘pebble’ of time can have far reaching effects for a population that is still often overlooked and sidelined. Tom Golisano said it perfectly: “… the disability rights movement is the last of the civil rights, and I don’t know if there is a ‘last’ but its time has come and the voices of self-advocates are getting stronger…”
You might wonder how disability rights can be the ‘last of the civil rights’ when Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990–both many years ago. But the truth is that we are at a time when, as it states on the main GiGi’s playhouse website: “new parents are not receiving the positive encouragement they need from medical professionals upon receiving a [Down syndrome] diagnosis. Students with Down syndrome still experience unfounded discrimination at school and on social media. Qualified adults with Down syndrome still can’t access meaningful jobs.” GiGi’s Playhouse is working to change that, and we can’t do it without our volunteers. We provide purposeful programming such as one-on-one literacy, math, and speech tutoring. We also have social groups, teach career skills and self-advocacy skills and more to help our participants succeed in the world. The work that Gigi’s volunteers are doing ripples out and sends a global message of acceptance for all.
No matter what your reason for volunteering, whether you’re the teenager whose parents make you volunteer, the person who is just trying to beautify one small corner of the world, or the no-nonsense Grandma who ends up getting more from volunteering than she realizes, or any other reason, GiGi’s needs you. We need in-person help with our free purposeful programs, our social programs, our office work as well as online program volunteers. Whether you are available only a few hours per year or many hours per week, in person or online, we need you. Your pebble will have a huge lasting ripple effect on the lives of people with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities and will come back to positively impact you. Your heart will be full. Your pebble will make ripples that will be far reaching and everlasting.