Have a Heart for Volunteering — During the Holidays and Beyond!
“Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.” ~ Elizabeth Andrew
Driving south one day on Highway 49 toward the coast, I noticed a welcoming sign that read something to the effect of: “The Mississippi Gulf Coast: A Certified Retirement Region.”
According to an article in Snowbirds Gulf Coast magazine, the Mississippi Gulf Coast achieved such certification based on its affordable cost of living, access to quality medical care, low taxes and crime rates, and recreational and cultural opportunities. Not only is the area attractive for retirees, but it’s a huge draw for retired military veterans who appreciate facilities as the Biloxi VA, the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System, Keesler Air Force Base Medical Center in Biloxi, and the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport. Organizations such as these rely heavily on donations of time and resources from volunteers. If you or your children have a heart for volunteering to help the elderly or veterans, there is no shortage of opportunities. In particular, the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH) in Gulfport is blessed to have a supportive community that consistently provides elderly residents with assistance.
“We are fortunate to have several military commands and local community [groups] that have adopted our events each year,” said Melodie Menke, Volunteer Coordinator at the retirement home housing more than 500 veterans.
“The local Girl Scouts, Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, the University of Southern Mississippi, and Keesler Air Force Base have all adopted different holiday events,” Menke said. “This [consistency] really means something to the residents and volunteers as it helps build friendships.” Holiday events that rely on volunteers include holiday ice cream socials and the taking down of Christmas decorations and packing them away for next year.
“The Pearl Harbor Day Ceremony is always in need of escorts for our healthcare residents,” Menke added. “And we can always use an extra set of hands and dancing feet for our Winter Wonderland Evening Dance and the New Year’s Eve Dance.”
Having volunteers of all ages interact with the residents is beneficial for all.
“Volunteers give the residents new faces and new interaction for that day, but also conversation at the dinner table [later] that night and well into next week,” Menke said.
The volunteers leave with a new perception as well. When learning what the veterans endured in their own lives, “it can be very humbling to the human spirit, no matter what age the volunteer!” remarked Menke. More than 100 volunteers per month come from the local military alone.
One such volunteer is MSgt. Rhokea E. Daniel, an active duty Airman at Keesler Air Force Base. She volunteers monthly (and sometimes more) at the AFRH in order to be an activerole model to other Airmen and to her own children.
“They are like my older brothers and sisters, and I enjoy hearing their stories of what they have been through, the sacrifices they have made, and their accomplishments,” Daniel said.
She feels it is especially important to volunteer during the holidays because you never know whether or not someone has family to come and visit and spend a few hours.
“You would be surprised at how happy these individuals are just by you simply spending one or two hours conversing with them, listening to them talk, singing holiday songs, sharing holiday stories, and maybe enjoying a meal with them,” Daniel said.
“It is amazing how they just light up when they see us coming, no matter what the event or reason. All they see is family,” she added. Sharing time and energy with others, especially seniors and veterans, is a fantastic way to express love and compassion. Menke suggested it is important, however, to actively seek out the organizations needing volunteers the most. She said it is important as a volunteer to ask yourself: “What does this organization truly need from me?” Really listening well to these needs ensures the experience is meaningful.
“Call ahead first and see what they really need in terms of donations and time,” Menke said. “Large numbers of volunteers can sometimes overwhelm many seniors and can take away the enjoyment of a slower one-on-one chat, where the pace is not as frantic.”
Menke further recommended finding out when the downtimes are during the day versus the “hot volunteer time slots” — when lots of activities are planned — and consider giving time when it will be needed and utilized the most.
Not only are the holidays a valuable time to serve the retirement community, but potential volunteers should consider the off-season as well.
“I like to ask organizations and groups to also think of us in the quieter months of January and February,” Menke encouraged. “Extend that goodwill past the holidays and throughout the year.” If you are interested in volunteering at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport during the holiday season — or at any time of the year — email Melodie Menke, Volunteer Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a monthly volunteer newsletter.
Tracy D. DeStazio is a freelance writer and editor living in Biloxi. She has been married to her high school sweetheart for 23 years and they have three children. All four of their grandparents live out-of-state, so her children often miss out on opportunities to be with, and learn from, elderly heroes – all the more reason to volunteer with our local retirees and veterans!