He retired from his professional career. He did not retire from volunteering.
At the invitation of a friend, around the fall of 1971, I started volunteering at St. John of God School in Deptford, NJ. Under the supervision of adult teachers, teens from southern New Jersey worked with mentally and physically disabled preschoolers on Saturday mornings during the school year.
The program had tangible and intangible benefits. When I was 15, I learned to change diapers and be patient when working with children. Both skills would come in handy when I became a father in 1994.
I have continued to volunteer for the past half century. This allowed me to explore a variety of opportunities, including rehabilitating a home for Habitat for Humanity, serving as a literacy tutor, and writing a newsletter for a local chapter of Amnesty International in the 1980s. These experiences lasted a few months (Habitat for Humanity) to a few years (Amnesty International) and are still part of my life. My wife Elizabeth and I regularly donate money to the first and I remain a member of the second.
Some volunteer periods lasted longer. I served as a big brother to three boys between 1981 and 1992 and delivered meals to seniors in their homes between 1994 and 2005 as part of the Serv-a-Tray program in Gloucester County, NJ.
My father’s death in May 1965 prompted me to volunteer as a big brother soon after I turned 25. In some ways, it served as a repeat of fatherhood by bonding with a 10-year-old boy named John over an eight-year span. period of one year. We participated in activities such as going to a Michael Jackson and his brothers concert in Philadelphia in 1984 or flying in a small plane flown by my owner at the time.
Serv-a-Tray gave me the opportunity to interact with older people, a totally different age group. I worked nights for a newspaper and could deliver lunches on weekdays. While meals were important, I quickly learned that people, some of whom were locked away, enjoyed human contact as much as food. I enjoyed the chance to exchange a few words with them and do occasional errands, like buying cat food from a nearby convenience store for a 90-year-old woman who no longer drives.
During the summer, when my daughters were not in school, I took them with me as my assistants and to give them a taste of volunteering. It is never too early to plant the seed of volunteerism in the next generation.
In the 21st century, I got involved in civic volunteering in my hometown of Pitman, NJ. I served on the board of the local library in 2007 and 2008 and, from 2014 to 2018, on the Memorial Committee, which manages the Pitman Historical Museum.
Since 2017, I have volunteered weekly at a community pantry in my church that distributes food to the needy in Pitman and nearby towns. We have filled a need, especially during the first months of the pandemic, and have benefited from an influx of food and financial donations from church and community members.
Volunteering gives you the chance to be a part of something bigger than yourself and to accomplish something for the common good. After a recent take-out dinner at a local Chinese restaurant, my fortune cookie summed it up nicely. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. “
–Tom Wilk, a retired copy editor, is an occasional freelance writer in Pitman, NJ He is the co-author of “Tales of South Jersey: Profiles and Personalities” (Rutgers University Press).
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