When I received an email from US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack regarding the President and first Lady’s summer of service initiative, United We Serve, I thought, “Oh no, now what?” As I read about the goals of the program, I wasn’t sure if I would have either the time or the energy to do anything. But, as I thought about how lucky I am at this time to have a job, a roof over my head and a reliable vehicle, it seemed very little to ask me to give up one afternoon. Little did I know how much value I would find in giving up one afternoon of my time.
I looked at Serve.gov and the various programs that needed volunteers in my area. There were so many different programs for different interest and it came down to questions like: “What do I like to do?” and “What would I enjoy doing with my free time that would benefit one of these programs?” I like kids and lost a brother who was a special needs child, and also like animals. Once I answered my own questions, it was very easy to narrow down the options to just a few.
After reviewing the links, I found an organization called LA WORKS, which featured many different service opportunities and even ones that actually fit my criteria. I noticed that there was an event that Sunday called KEEN LA, a program that works with special needs children of various ages and disabilities. The event was to be held at the Los Angeles Police Academy, which donates its lap pool facilities to the program. It was a day to play with special needs children who would not normally be given that opportunity to swim because of their socioeconomic backgrounds.
Though sometimes there are not enough volunteers to work with each child, there were two volunteers for every child that weekend; another volunteer and I did lifeguard duties. As I stood there lifeguarding, watching the other volunteers interact with the child they were paired up with, it was evident that the children weren’t the only ones enjoying themselves.
In addition to being given the opportunity to serve, I felt I was given the opportunity to be an observer. There were children of different ages, ethnicities and disabilities. But the pool water was the great equalizer and these children became children who just wanted to play. I looked at these children who had no idea that they were different, didn’t feel sorry for themselves for what they couldn’t do, they only knew that there was a pool, water and toys. They were definitely determined to get in that pool and have fun. This event found those children with physical disabilities floating and splashing like everyone else. Even those having their first experience with a pool and fearful of water were soon in the water, jumping and laughing. This was all due to their volunteer partners, who gently coaxed them in. The joy, smiles and laughter said it all.
I was a little ambivalent about giving up my free time, but then I thought, “If I could just for one moment think of the needs of those around me, even if only for one afternoon, what difference would that make?” I volunteered thinking that I would be sacrificing something. Instead, I found that day that I was the one who received a new appreciation for my life and my family. The children taught me through their example, “Don’t worry be happy.” They were just there enjoying life. It was truly a gift to work with them; they were amazing and courageous.
I don’t have the money, but I do have the time. I can’t wait for my next adventure.
Written by Mary A., a Consumer Safety Inspector for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. She is returning to LA WORKS, a Hands On Volunteer Action Center, this Saturday to volunteer with a group of toddlers. To find a similar service opportunity in your area, keyword search: “lifeguard” “swim instructor” “special needs children.”