Down the street from our apartment in Tallahassee, and just off the lovely Lake Ella, sat the offices for an Alzheimer's nonprofit. They placed an ad in my church's bulletin calling for volunteers to sit with a person with Alzheimer's while his caregiver took some time for herself.
I had a grandfather with Alzheimer's (listen to my spoken word piece here) and, though I didn't know it then, another grandmother just shy of a diagnosis. I offered to help.
Weekly I'd drive to the small home and greet Mabel before she left for her hair appointment. Mabel was from Alabama, and her mouthful of marble talk made communication tricky. I sensed she wanted me for herself, was lonely for the company, but needed her hair set. I waved her off and sat with her husband, John, who was only slightly easier to understand (he had Parkinson's, not Alzheimer's).
The shades were drawn most of the time I was there, and occasionally I'd suggest letting in a little light, but both John and I knew Mabel liked her surroundings a certain way. He had a wit about him that the disease couldn't fully take away, and would joke while demonstrating his new recliner's ability to lift him to a standing position.
Though I liked John, those were long hours. I comforted myself in the fact that I was helping Mabel and providing John with a welcome distraction. But I also couldn't wait to be done; the room was dark, the silences long, and I'm not naturally at ease with the elderly. It didn't help that our two years in Florida were already a long stretch of uncomfortable events, culminating, finally, in a move to Iowa.
There's helping people, and there's thriving as yourself. When the two can meet, the approach is holistic, better, best. After sitting with John I still made some wrong moves in my efforts to help others--teaching a cooking class to young city kids comes to mind first--but I started looking for ways my talents and abilities could mesh with others' needs, rather than make that common mistake: thinking that helping had to hurt, had to be a sacrifice.
Last week I began as a volunteer mentor at my boxing gym. Not all the kids stay to box and neither do most of the mentors, as it's a separate program. But I like that it's housed there, and that I can give back to the place that has welcomed me and taught me so much. The nine-year-old girl I'm paired up with is a sweetie, but there are some tough kids in the mentoring program, some still without a mentor. I felt like I was adopting when J ran to me upon the announcement; she'd been waiting a while.
After we finished, I changed clothes and wrapped my hands. Some of the tougher girls, I saw, were watching me with new eyes: no longer was I just some white woman smiling her way through a volunteer session; I was here to sweat it out alongside the others (and punch one of the other mentors).
Mentoring is just an hour one day a week, and it's a lot easier than my work in the homeless shelter. But finally, a comfortable fit, a match. Surely, as with all volunteering, J will give back as much as I give her; but for starters, I can give thanks that all is in order on my end.
Even more organic a match is the scene four nights a week at the boxing gym: a group of mostly African-American men guiding a group of mostly African-American boys. Eight hours or more a week. Their devotion to boxing meets the boys right where they are, and allows them a natural mentoring role. This isn't part of the mentoring program I mentioned above, and I'd guess most of these men are unpaid. I love catching moments between them that have everything to do with boxing and nothing at all.
These men are in their corner because they want to be, and the young guys know it. That's how it should be.