Thursday, July 21, 2016

Volunteering = Journey to Discovery

Rochelle Pines bubbles over with contagious enthusiasm. I first met her a few years ago when I was teaching a six week memoir writing series at a sparkling, new recreation center in Pawleys Island, SC. As we met each week, Rochelle’s stories were particularly memorable because she has overcome multiple major challenges in life and yet possesses a positive outlook and burning desire to help others.

Making a connection with a writer of retiree age in this workshop group, Rochelle was introduced to the Activities Director at a local Assisted Living facility. She knew that she had a beneficial gift to offer the residents of the memory care unit and eagerly agreed to brighten the days of these folks with her own program of music therapy.

She knew from previous experience that music transcends all barriers of gender, education level, race and age. Rochelle explains exactly how she discovered this gift: “It all started in New York.  I had some health problems. My sister-in-law happened to be the Administrator at an Assisted Living in the Bronx and suggested that I live there for a while and get the support I needed at the time. I was in my late fifties and fully alert, so I was somewhat bored and looking for something to do. I spoke with the Activities Director and asked her if I could play some CDs for the residents.

What I know now is that there are thousands of articles out there about the benefits of music on dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.

This is what happened:  I would have a group of forty-five residents with half of them not even knowing their own names.When we started, they were all droopy and just sitting there. Once I started the music, the room would come alive. I started to collect music they would recognize since it was an older population – music from the 30s, the 40s, the 50s – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Broadway show music. By the time the forty-five minutes had passed and we had to go to lunch, the group was singing and didn’t even want to go to lunch because they were having such a good time!”

So Rochelle brought this activity to the memory care unit at Lakes of Litchfield and blessed them with the same type of program. She describes her “gig” in this manner: “The group and I – now usually less than ten people – always start off by singing, ‘God Bless America’ acapella. This is funny because I don’t have a good voice. My friend, who is a musician, has told me that my voice is only slightly “off” and a few singing lessons would help a lot. The singing lessons are on my wish list.

Then I start to do my “DJ gig” – Frank Sinatra – I sing and dance to, “That’s Life” (a song about me and my life). Then I play Dean Martin’s “Volare” for Anna who is Italian, grew up in Little Italy, and lived on Mulberry St. I got some background information from a daughter-in-law who told me that Anna has had a stroke and has suffered brain damage.

From there I go to Broadway music.We are having fun – I’m walking about the room, making eye contact with each resident in attendance, giving them a handshake, a little hug and a, “God bless you.”

They need the upbeat music, the smiles, the warmth. I even wear my upbeat, bright Woodstock t-shirt!

One resident obviously knows the words to the Broadway music. Her younger sister visited one day and shared that her sister and her husband frequently went to Manhattan to the shows.

I added Andrea Boccelli, even though it wasn’t music that they would recognize.  Bonnie cries every week when she hears this music – it simply touches her soul. I’ve noticed that this resident is losing her eyesight, so her sense of hearing is heightened now due to her loss of sight.

As I’m unplugging my CD player and picking up my bags we sing, ‘God Bless America’ once again. I walk out reassuring them that, “I’ll return next week, have no doubt. God bless you!”

As I leave I just wonder, who gets more out of these sessions – the residents or myself? Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer.”  

Rochelle exemplifies what volunteerism is all about. It embodies taking your own life experiences, passions, skills and time to benefit someone else. Volunteers do not seek monetary compensation, but ultimately significantly benefit from their “gigs.” The inherent satisfaction to the soul in helping others is the greatest reward ever.

Want to feel the exhilaration that emanates from giving back to the community? Volunteer. The experience will produce an uncontrollable smile that dominates your face.

I am hoping to be blogging more in the near future. Life has just been wildly hectic and has kept me hopping! See you soon...

Mary Anne Benedetto,