Helping Others (And Yourself)September 9, 2017
Story by Candy Neal
Photos by Tegan Johnston
The technical world we live in tends to discourage human interaction.
We live through our smartphones and computers. We know about happenings across the globe. We can get information about just about anything or any place that is thousands miles away or more.
With the hurricanes occurring in the southern section of the country, people from all over the United States hear about the needs online and through social media. As a result, volunteers have been going to places like Texas and Louisiana to help with relief efforts. Many are watching and waiting to hear how they can help in Florida if needed.
And while that is wonderful, what about the day-to-day, week-to-week happenings in your own backyard, so to speak? What about the needs that are in our local community?
Dubois County was pretty much built on the idea of neighbors helping neighbors, of people working hard to serve the community.
Do we still do that? Do we still want to do that? The answer is mixed.
One thing that is clear, though — local organizations survive and thrive because of the people who volunteer to help them.
Leonard Spellmeyer of Jasper guides a horse around a fenced-in area at Freedom Reins Therapeutic Riding Center. On the horse sits a happy William Schwartz of Jasper, who comes to the program weekly. The hourlong session includes riding, interacting with the horse, chatting and getting to know the horse handler — Leonard in this case.
Freedom Reins provides six-week riding sessions for individuals with special needs. Volunteers are always needed to help lead the horses around for the riders.
This is therapy for Schwartz, yes. But it’s therapy for Spellmeyer, too.
“I get so much satisfaction out of seeing them smile and making them happy,” Spellmeyer said. “They all love it. To see them smile makes me smile.”
Spellmeyer, who used to have horses, has also been a 4-H leader for horse and pony in the past. But it took him awhile to finally pursue volunteering at Freedom Reins.
“I’ve wanted to do this for a few years, but I kept putting if off and putting it off,” he said. “I finally decided to volunteer nine years ago.”
His responsibilities were starting to slow down by then — his children were adults with their own families, and he was getting to the end of his career with German American.
Linda Klem, who coordinates the volunteers for Freedom Reins, said they can use more.
“We have about 30 students enrolled in six classes a week,” she said. “It takes a lot of volunteers to help with them.”
For one student on the horse, there is a person guiding the horse and one or two people who walk alongside the horse to make sure the rider stays on. So the need is for at least 60 volunteers for those 30 students.
“We could not operate this program without our volunteers,” said Klem, who is a volunteer herself. “They assist in helping the students build confidence and balance. Some students who didn’t talk at first are talking by the end of the class. Just to see them improve as they go along is wonderful.”
Habitat for Humanity of Dubois County also thrives off its volunteers. When a house is being built for a family in need, volunteers, especially those who have skills in constructing a home, do most of the building. The latest home was completed in August. Volunteer work crews worked each week until the home was complete.
“Every time I’ve talked to a group, they’ve all said that they are willing to help,” said Sarah Weatherwax, who has been Habitat’s executive director for the past year.
“Helping with the construction is always one of the first offers we get,” she said. “I think people in the industry don’t get a lot of opportunities to use their skills to help.”
The Dubois County Museum relies on its volunteers, a roster of about 120 people, to function.
“We’re all volunteers,” said Kathy Bachman, who coordinates the museum’s volunteers. “The only person that is paid is a cleaning lady.” And with that, she added, there is an additional person, a volunteer, who comes in on certain days to help with the cleaning.
The majority of the museum’s volunteers work in the lobby, greeting and directing visitors, and in the gift shop. But many also work behind the scenes in jobs like setting up exhibits, processing and cataloging donations the museum receives and planning future programs.
“Just this week, somebody came in to repair some lights, and another came in to work on a cabinet,” Bachman said.
If the county museum did not have volunteers, the museum would not be able to operate.
“Volunteers are the backbone of the museum, and we love doing it,” Bachman said.
People looking for opportunities to help can either contact an organization or check out Volunteer Dubois County’s website. Volunteer Dubois County was created in 2009 as a portal to connect volunteers with organizations that need them.
“It can be hard to find different kinds of opportunities to volunteer, especially if you don’t know what kinds of organizations are out there,” said Paige Stradtner, who manages VolunteerDuboisCounty.org, which has been up and running since 2012.
Organizations create an account and list their volunteer needs. Volunteers go to the site, find something they are interested in, and click the link to show interest. The organization will contact the volunteer, Stradtner said.
“It’s a way of trying to make what volunteer opportunities that are out there more accessible and available to people who want to volunteer,” she said. “It’s a quick and direct way to connect interested volunteers with an organization.”
About 10 organizations are registered with the website. “Over the years, we’ve had more organizations register, and then the number would drop off. So it fluctuates,” Stradtner said . “What we have on our site is by no means a comprehensive listing of all the nonprofits in Dubois County. It’s the ones that are more comfortable with using online tools like this.”
Although the website is not as heavily promoted to the public as it was when it started, there are still a lot of people who visit the site and the organization’s Facebook page.
“I’m surprised how much interest we still get from volunteers. We also have more seeking volunteers than organizations,” Stradtner said. “We get new likes all the time; people sign up for our newsletter.”
To Stradtner, that shows that local volunteerism is still active.
“If you look at reports on a whole, they show that volunteerism is on the decline in the past decade nationally,” she said. “But I think Dubois County is a proactive area. It seems like a lot of people do get out there and volunteer. I don’t think the county is the complete opposite of the national trend. But I think the county is holding steady.”
Seniors are also active in volunteering. Retired Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, has been promoting volunteerism for people age 55 and older.
“A volunteer who goes to bed at night has something to look forward to in the morning. They have a purpose,” said Becky Beckman, who coordinates RSVP. “It is proven that it is a health benefit, and mental health benefit. When you’re feeling good that you are giving back to your community, it’s amazing what it does for a person.
“With the socialization, it cuts downs on people feeling isolated.”
RSVP is a federal program under Senior Corps, which is a part of the Corporation for National & Community Service. RSVP started in the 1970s; Tri-Cap started the program in its coverage areas — Dubois, Pike and Warrick counties — in 1972.
When Beckman was a child, she remembers huge pushes for people to volunteer at senior citizen facilities. “Big groups of people, my mom included, did that,” she said.
But the Jasper native doesn’t see that big push throughout the community any more. “That is starting to die out. We don’t volunteer like we used to,” she said. “We don’t feel the need to give back to different age groups and different settings like nursing homes and long-time care centers.”
What she has seen in the 15 years she has been with RSVP is a shift in the focus.
“We’re big in food and security,” she said. “We’ve got tremendous food banks. And now we’ve started with the Hope Garden with Memorial Hospital. Community Meals has a backpack buddy program in which my volunteers stuff backpacks. We cover Fifth and Tenth Street schools. We do 250 bags a week, for the kids who are on the free and reduced lunch programs. And they then have food for the weekend.”
Food and security is a category that Beckman can note service time in the federal paperwork that she must complete for the RSVP program. The medication collection events at which RSVP volunteers help is counted under the environmental stewardship and substance abuse categories, another big emphasis in the area, she said. Veterans are another focus.
“We’ve got strong American Legions and VFWs here, so we have 17 or 18 veterans that are volunteers,” Beckman said.
They also help with behind-the-scenes tasks, such as stuffing envelopes for service groups. “I can get some people together in a couple day’s notice,” Beckman said. “I have some who would reschedule things just to come help. It helps cuts down on expenses for local organizations. We take some of that off their hands, so that they don’t have to worry about it.”
RSVP has about 240 volunteers; about 180 of those are in Dubois County. Altogether, RSVP logged about 37,000 hours of work from April 2016 to March 2017.
According to Independent Sector — a national coalition of nonprofits, foundations and corporate giving programs — the average value of a volunteer’s time as of 2016, the latest information available from the organization, is $24.14 per hour. The value for a volunteer in Indiana is $23.38 per hour, which is a 3 percent increase from 2015.
Beckman hopes the stream of volunteers remains steady.
“A lot of people pass on, you know. I have a lot of people I lose to death or to long-term care or who can’t physically do it anymore,” she said. “Transportation can be a struggle. So that’s the thing about working with seniors. Those things can change day by day.”
Spellmeyer hopes to volunteer more, now that he retired from German American in May. “I could’ve stayed there, but I wanted to retire because there were others things that I want to do,” he said. “There are a lot of things do out there to support the community; I want to serve more.”
So not only does he work with Freedom Reins and St. Mary’s parish in Ireland, but he joined the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program this past spring; he is already serving on a case.
CASAs are community volunteers who are trained to represent the best interests of children who are part of the court system due to abuse or neglect.
Why did he choose CASA? “Well somebody has to do it,” he said. “You can’t sit back and wait and think someone else will do it.”
“I am blessed,” Spellmeyer said. “I’ve got good health. My family is raised; I have grandkids, and I spend a lot of time with them. I’ve been very fortunate. And I just thought it was time to help somebody else.”
Friends Lora Oxley and Erica Schmitt, both of Jasper, serve food every chance they get at Dubois County Community Meals, located at Ozanam Hall on South Meridian Road. On a particular evening, they helped to prep and cook the food and serve it to the people who came by, both with smiles on their faces.
The program is a cooperative effort of several community groups and churches to serve hot meals to those who may not always have access to meals. Meals are served on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Many of the people who came were also visiting the Community Food Bank that Wednesday evening; the food bank is right across the parking lot from where the meal is being served.
“It’s important to volunteer because it gives you a better sense of the struggles in the world,” Schmitt said. “Especially living in Jasper, we can be unaware of what hardships may be taking place right next door. We like to think we’ve got it all together, but when I’m serving at Community Meals, it makes me realize that there are people that need help right here, in our own hometown.”
Oxley shared the same sentiment.
“Sometimes I get so busy that I don’t stop to take in things around me. Sometimes in life we tend to get so wrapped up in ourselves,” she said. “Going to serve meals is the least I can do to try and brighten someone’s day or week. You don’t know someone’s story that may have lead them where they are and you don’t know what they may be struggling with at that very moment. It’s not our job or our place to judge them, but to love them and let them know that there are people out there that love them.”
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