From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

The Lady with the Smiley Voice

People are always good company when they are doing what they really enjoy.

Samuel Butler

My mom, Rosie, began her first real volunteering in the late 1950s. With five rambunctious children being . . . well . . . children, she had to find a regular, temporary escape out of the house.

I was the youngest of those brats who helped chase her into becoming a volunteer. But it was without regrets as it shaped both of our lives for the next four decades.

Since one of my mom’s favorite nieces was blind, she chose to sign up as one of the first volunteers at the national nonprofit organization known as Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D) at their Upland, California studio.

Immersing herself completely into her “work,” Rosie became Board chair (five times), a leading fundraiser and their star volunteer recruiter. Her passion was so contagious no one could turn her down.

When Rosie realized blind students needed to identify the textbooks on audiotape, she learned Braille and made tags to identify the tapes. She then founded the Pomona Valley Transcriber’s Guild and taught Braille to sighted adults, vision-impaired children and local college students.

My mother had two passions: one for our family and the other for the visually impaired. She was fiercely committed to all students having equal opportunity and flew to Sacramento, our state capital, more than once to picket for the cause. In addition, she graduated from college a year before I did because, as she said in words I can still hear, “Recording for the Blind prefers volunteers with college degrees, honey.”

On one occasion, Rosie had the opportunity to meet a blind “borrower” of RFB&D’s audio textbooks. As soon as she introduced herself to the young man, he exclaimed, “Oh I know you. You’re the lady with the smiley voice!”

The last year of my mom’s life was extremely painful and frustrating. Cancer had taken over inside, and pain was something she couldn’t understand or bend to. After forty years of steady volunteering—including weekly trips to the recording studio—the RFB&D staff came to my mother’s house to set up a home recording station since trips to nearby Upland were too much for her to endure.

On her “good” days, she would spend an average of fifteen minutes recording textbooks in her living room for the kids she wanted to make sure stayed in school. She actually became embarrassed that was all she could give. Finally too weak to record and riddled with pain, she spent her last days proofreading Braille lessons for the blind college students who had come to depend on her.

But before my mother died, she made us swear not to hold a funeral. If we did, she promised to haunt us.

Waiting until I got home from a trip to Sacramento and then eking out one more day of life so my brother, Richard, could celebrate his birthday on June third in peace every year, Rose Betty Kelber—a volunteer for most of her life— died on June 4, 1998. She was willful, vibrant, caring and always put others before herself.

Our family pulled together and got around the haunting threat by holding a “Celebration of Life.” As my siblings, father and I numbly filed into the front row at Temple Beth Israel, as if orphaned children had taken over our middle-aged bodies, we were stunned to see more than two hundred people filling the seats behind us. In a moment’s notice, the community had come to bid goodbye to my mom. We had no idea her years of volunteering had meant so much to those who depended on her.

I’ll never forget the faces. They were bereft at the loss of one who had given so selflessly. The lady “with the smiley voice” who had inspired them and whipped them into shape would be heard no more.

As one of her dear friends said, “I’ve never known a more unselfish person than Rosie. Her remarkable energy and talent were given with the deepest kind of compassion for the welfare of others. Her life was a gift to all who knew her.” That was my mom.

I’ve now been on the staff at the Los Angeles unit of RFB&D for over six years. Not a day goes by without hearing echoes of her voice: “Oh honey, it’s such a wonderful organization. You have to take the job!”

Now I see myself in a staff position with the heart and soul of a volunteer. It is my mom’s everlasting memory driving me to tell the world that each one of us has some special gift that can change a myriad of lives.

Diane Kelber

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, contact 20 Roszel Rd., Princeton, NJ 08450; 800-221-4792; Web site:]

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