From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Bless Every Evelyn!

Most say that as you get old, you have to give up things. I think you get old because you give up things.

Senator Theodore Green

Evelyn was ninety-two when I came to know her. As the new accountant for a museum in Fresno, California, I inherited a cadre of volunteers assigned to “office functions.”

Evelyn was the queen of these devoted ladies, leaving the rest in the dust, not only in volunteer years, but life years. Although frail and tiny, she had a feistiness that was legendary. Every Tuesday, without fail, she would steer her ancient Plymouth through the streets of Fresno to the museum for her weekly dose of culture.

I was hard-pressed to find tasks to keep Evelyn busy. Math skills were not her forte. She could not operate a calculator, and the numbers on accounting ledger sheets were too small for her to read. She couldn’t type on an electric typewriter, let alone a word processor, and her lack of coordination and deteriorating eyesight prevented her from putting labels on file folders. Alphabetizing invoices seemed like a good assignment for her, but her concept of the alphabet varied from the rest of us. Most any task I assigned was either too difficult or had to be redone by another volunteer.

I’m all business. Museums might be nonprofit enterprises, but they still should be run with an eye toward the bottom line. I saw the volunteers as nonhuman assets, pairs of hands waiting to perform useful work at no cost to the organization. Evelyn taught me how wrong I was.

Before I learned that lesson, her weekly arrival frustrated me. She’d show up for her three-hour shift, unable to perform “useful” work, taking up space, chattering constantly with the staff and other volunteers, making extra work for others by not getting her assignment done correctly. I would give her a box of pennies from the donation box and ask her to wrap them into fifty-cent rolls. Even with a counter, her rolls contained forty-seven, forty-nine, fifty-three, whatever, number of pennies. As she left each Tuesday, I would dump out rolls and save the pennies for the next shift.

“Busy work,” I fumed in my office. “What a waste!” Each Tuesday afternoon, Evelyn rolled up in that blue wreck of a car, and I’d feel a headache coming on. I began to dread Tuesdays.

Then one week, Evelyn didn’t show up for her shift. Oftentimes, volunteers didn’t call in to let us know they weren’t coming. But when the following Tuesday arrived without Evelyn, someone called her home to check on her.

Evelyn had been in a car accident. It was her fault, and she was okay but still stiff and sore. She lost her driver’s license. No one realized what a psychological blow this was to her. She saw the museum as family, like a church almost, a major social outlet in her life. None of us, especially “business me,” realized this.

She became depressed, called us frequently to continue the contact, but eventually even the calls dropped off. Finally, a few staffers went to her home and were shocked at what they found.

As a tiny person, Evelyn could ill afford to lose the amount of weight she had lost. She had cloistered herself in her small, modest home. Since she couldn’t drive any longer, she rarely got out. Her only child, a daughter, lived in another state. She made a brief visit after the accident but returned to her home weeks before. Evelyn was fading fast.

That’s when the museum folks went into action.

We connected Evelyn to various social services for other assistance. But every Tuesday, without fail, we took turns bringing her over for her volunteer shift. She was always dressed in her volunteer outfits, ready and waiting for the outing, the focus of her life. I let go of my drive for productivity and gave her tasks that made her feel useful and needed, regardless of their impact on the museum’s operation. She thrived as the center of attention.

It was then I realized volunteers aren’t mere cogs in wheels. They’re there because they want to be, not because they have to be. Their sense of belonging and contributing is equally, if not more, important than the actual work that needs to be done.

After Evelyn died at the age of ninety-seven, the museum closed up operations while our staff attended her funeral.

She taught us all, and particularly me, that volunteers are the soul of an organization, and the body of an institution is just an empty shell without the soul. Bless every Evelyn!

Sally Fouhse

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