Are you hesitant about accepting someone with a mental illness as a volunteer? I hope this story will be food for thought.
In January 1998 I interviewed Alyce Jones (not her real name), who was interested in volunteering at our home for the aging. Alyce was accompanied by Jean, the art therapist at a nearby shelter for homeless, mentally disabled women, which is where Alyce lived. Jean had encouraged Alyce to apply for a volunteer position, believing it would be a way for Alyce to get back into the community and lift the depression that she was being treated for.
I tried not to be distracted by Alyce’s missing front teeth and dark wig, but concentrated on her exquisitely written application which revealed that she was a highly skilled person with numerous interests. She spoke softly with clarity and sincerity. Jean, Alyce, and I discussed the type of emotional support and supervision Alyce would need and reviewed the various volunteer positions available. We settled on her becoming a one-on-one friendly visitor. The directors of our Social Services and Therapeutic Recreation departments worked with me to develop a focused yet flexible plan for Alyce.
The director of Therapeutic Recreation prepared a list of residents who might benefit from Alyce’s visits and the director of Social Services agreed to oversee her work. Alyce and I also agreed to meet daily, which gave me the opportunity to coach and praise her and especially to listen to her talk about her work. I was overjoyed to learn that Alyce had befriended sweet Mary on the fourth floor and was writing letters for her, and that Alyce and Mrs. Johnson, a blind resident, were spending time in our beautiful garden, sharing their love for history and story telling.
In February Alyce and Jean invited me to visit the shelter. Located across the street from a crack house, the shelter housed 300 abused and dysfunctional women: mothers and daughters with nowhere to go. Armed guards escorted me upstairs to the Transitional Living Community, Alyce’s unit, where there are 30 residents. The unit was peaceful compared to the din below and above us. Alyce introduced me to the residents and staff and gave me a tour. When Alyce walked me back to our agency, I saw a different woman. I saw her in completeness: her strength, courage, intelligence, and adaptability--traits that would empower our nursing home residents to flourish within their physical, mental and emotional limitations. I saw a woman fulfilling needs for self-esteem and self-expression through meaningful volunteer work.
Over the next few months our talks became less frequent yet more valuable, taking on a new dimension of challenging cohesive teamwork as she drew up her own action plan for resident involvement. Alyce began to communicate directly with the social workers and was helping various recreational activities for the residents. By May the wig was gone and Alyce had new front teeth. The change in her appearance mirrored the transformation within. This confirmed my belief that everyone has a gift to offer. If these gifts are recognized and the abilities of each person are received with open minds and hearts, true magic happens.