Finding joy in volunteering

Larry Roth works with David Sanchez Arana, Fatima Santiago Dominguez and Dylan Morales Carbajal at Easton Elementary School.

Finding joy in volunteering
April 27
19:00 2022

By Larry Roth

I’m old. I’m retired. And I’m happy.

My personal secret of happiness is wrapped up in helping kids learn how to read when I volunteer in an elementary school. It makes me feel useful, like I’m not over the hill. And when the students learn, I learn, too.

Volunteering is so important to me that I work four hours a day, five days a week. And talk about the appreciation I get—wow! The teachers treat me like a colleague, even though I don’t have their workload or responsibilities. Some have become really good friends.

The librarian makes me coffee at lunch time. She laughs at my jokes—well, most of them. And when I meet a certain custodian in the hall, he calls me “young man.” You can’t buy stuff like that!

The administrators let me know that they appreciate me, and I appreciate them. They have kept their educational ship afloat in a struggling neighborhood despite staff shortages and a killer of a pandemic. I want to shout, “Hooray!” for them!

There aren’t many jobs where people can set their own hours and pretty much decide what they will and won’t do—but hey! These are my golden years! I volunteer in areas where my education has given me skills and confidence. And when a boy or girl who just arrived in this country speaking only a foreign language starts to recognize printed words in English, the feeling I get is as good as a hug.

Since I have become a familiar face at the school, the faculty trusts me with more and more responsibility, which means my daily tasks become more varied and interesting. And I am the proud owner of a T-shirt with “STAFF” printed on the back. The students see me as an authority figure, but a friendly one. They interrupt a lesson to greet me when I walk into a classroom and say goodbye to me when I leave.

One of my most poignant memories is the day I called a student out for misbehaving in the library. Among other things, he had pulled a book off its shelf and put it on the floor. I told him to put it back on the shelf. He put it back, backward. I made him turn it around. 

“Are you a teacher?” he asked me. “No, I’m a volunteer.” “Do you get paid?” “No.” “Why are you working here if you don’t get paid?” “Because I love you guys.” The kid’s behavior improved immediately.

Some people think I’m doing this volunteer job to benefit the students. I’m not. It’s pure self-interest. I’m doing it for me. To have some activity, some excitement, some sense of accomplishment, some joy in my everyday life. When I leave Easton Elementary School in the afternoon, I’m happier than when I walked in in the morning.

Since I’m old, I can foresee the day when I physically or mentally won’t be able to volunteer anymore. That will be a sad day. I’ll feel better about it if I can offer my secret of happiness to other older persons and help them find joy in volunteering in a school. 

Maybe you?

Larry Roth has taught English as a foreign language in the Peace Corps and for five years was involved in relief and development work for Lutheran World Relief, primarily in francophone African countries. He served 11 years as director of AIDS Care Service, retiring in 2005. He received a bachelor of journalism  and  master’s in French literature from the University of Missouri, and juris doctor from New York University.

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