I went to volunteer at the Jewish Home Life care facility on 106th and Broadway one very hot summer morning. I wasn’t sure what to expect but thought it would be “fun to scribe for seniors”, that’s what the description of the 2 hour volunteer activity organized through New York Cares mentioned.
I walked from 103rd street subway stop, as always running a little late and finding myself a little lost. I got there a few minutes before time and was happy to be out of the oppressed sun into a nicely air-conditioned building. It didn’t look very plush but yet not run down. It wasn’t overly inviting and bursting with energy but also wasn’t grey and depressing. I felt a little better but still quite not at ease. As I found my way to the auditorium where the activity was happening, I was happy to notice carts with chilled lemon water and what I am guessing was strawberry lemonade.
The event was sponsored by New York Cares with the help of volunteers (such as me) and the social workers who supported the facility. I believe the event idea was from a longtime volunteer at the center. All residents were to meet at the auditorium; either getting there on their own or being wheeled there by us volunteers.
Once settled the plan was to read out to them a short story and then have them think of similar stories from their lives on the same theme. The story that was read out was by Mark Twain and titled, “Celebrated jumping frog of Calverous County.” I had never heard this story before.
To enhance the experience, someone had checked out from the NYPL (public library), pictures of frogs and Mark Twain. What an incredibly nice gesture and neat idea! Some of the frog pictures were absolutely gorgeous and same goes for Mark Twain’s as well. The better ones of Mark Twain with quotes had been printed in large numbers for people to take with them. I took notes on the back of one of them in order to share my feelings later on with a larger audience.
The residents were all very friendly and very full of life.
One of the residents had her birthday that day. When complimented on looking so good at 92 she joked and said, “I am not 92, I am 29.”
Another lady asked me how it was outside. I wasn’t done complaining about the oppressive heat and replied, “It’s very hot.” She looked longingly and said, “I still wish I could go out.” It made me realize something we all know and are guilty of; taking things for granted, even if it’s the basic freedom to roam about outside and experience both good and overbearing weather.
The place looked and felt very democratic with both old and some very old residents, people from different nationalities, as well as both men and women. The men seemed to be a lot more physically challenged and quieter as well. One of them had tubes around his nose. Almost all of them were on wheel chairs. Most of them had taken care to dress well, and seemed to be reverberating with life and energy.
I heard two volunteers exchanging a quick comment on the hallway saying, “Doris is here! Remember Doris, she’s so much fun.” That was my second realization for the day –volunteering was a two-way street with both parties enriching each other’s lives. One helping the other experience life in a wheel chair and the other helping us feel how it would be when we were in their shoes and sitting in a similar wheel chair.
When the writing session finally started, they played a Celtic music cd in the background. It felt like they had taken special care to make the event enjoyable and enriching. I ended up sitting between two ladies; one lady was African-American and the other with Spanish origins. I assumed I would scribe for both of them.
The first story was very simple yet elegant. It was about the time when the lady had entered a beauty pageant and had won a prize. The prize consisted of two dozen roses and a road trip to somewhere. I found it charming that she mentioned she wouldn’t forget that day but she couldn’t remember where the road trip was to.
A lot of people notice my black hair, brown skin and think I am Spanish but unfortunately I don’t know more than 5 basic words of that language, most of them picked up listening to the Spanish options on a customer service line. I was surprised that no one else in the room knew Spanish either. I tried my best to understand my story tellers Spanish and write down the words if not the actual story behind the words. She was very patient with me and eager to tell her story, another life affirming quality of elders. But I didn’t think I had done a good job and then I realized I owned a smart phone! I quickly downloaded Google itranslate and we made a second attempt at story telling. We were semi-successful and I think this is the poem she wanted to share
Trunk bears trees
Trees bear leafs
Leafs bear flowers, children called maria
Praise and thank God for all life
Given a chance, I would go back there to spend more time with all of them.