These women reached out to help others–and discovered along the way that their own lives changed for the better
I was feeling pretty sorry for myself,” says Heather Delucci, 32, (at far right) about the state she was in a year ago. Newly separated from her husband of ten years, she was struggling to raise her sons–Ryan, 9, and Tyler, 5–and meet the demands of her job as a budget assistant at the local naval base.
Feeling like she needed a distraction, Delucci called HandsOn Jacksonville, a “fix up” service that matches would-be volunteers with charities. She’d always been sympathetic to developmentally disabled adults but had told herself she couldn’t devote the time because her kids needed her too much. “Then I started thinking, `Would it be so terrible to get my boys involved too?'”
Delucci was hooked up with Grove House, which was looking for people to provide social activities for its disabled residents–visiting, or taking them to the mall or to the movies.
She helped out with events–supervising a barbecue and helping to sell oranges plucked from the trees behind the group home for a fund-raiser. Other times, she and her sons took residents out to dinner, or chauffeured them to appointments or to run errands. Sometimes, they just hung out, talking.
Almost immediately, Delucci’s depression lifted. “Volunteering made me look at what I have, not at what I feel like I should have,” she says. “Walking into a restaurant, eating spaghetti–these are very simple things. But spending time with people who can’t do them makes you realize all the things you have in your life,” she says.
At home, she says, little things don’t bother her as much anymore. “My kids used to drive me crazy when they acted up,” she says. “Now, I thank God that they’re healthy and are able to drive me nuts.” She says her boys (perched on carousel horses, above) have grown less self-conscious around the disabled, and more compassionate.
When friends tell Delucci they’d like to volunteer but are just “too busy,” she doesn’t let them off the hook. “You don’t know what giving an hour a week will do for you. When you realize how little it takes to make someone happy, your heart just wants to explode. I get a zillion times more out of this than I put into it!”
An attack of the guilts is what got Sandra Ereth, 46, to sign up with the Red Cross four years ago. A friend asked if she would be on the board of directors of a local Red Cross chapter. Although Ereth had little free time (she works full time and has two teenagers), “I felt like I should set a good example for my kids,” she says.
The struggling chapter was shorthanded on all fronts. Ereth helped with public relations and fund-raising. But she also attended disaster-training seminars that covered everything from CPR to cooking for the masses. (“You never know when you’ll need to make hot chocolate for a hundred,” says Ereth.)
And she learned how to console people in the wake of a disaster. “You have to ask questions without seeming too intrusive–to get them to tell you what their needs are.”
Her first mission: a trailer fire. It was a typical North Dakota winter night: 15 degrees below zero and snowy. Ereth was complaining about her cold feet, until she saw the occupants of the trailer–a young couple and their two children–huddled miserably in a nearby car. She rapped on the window and explained that she could get them to a hotel, with food and clothes. She still remembers the relief on their faces. “I was hooked,” she says.
Today, Ereth has worked dozens of disasters. But one that stands out is the 1997 Grand Forks flood. “I’d seen floods on TV, but I’d never realized how horrible they really are,” she says. “I was dumbfounded.”
She worked from 10:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. day after day at the command center, watching grown men cry as they described how their homes had been washed away. I don’t know how much more of this I can handle, she thought. I need to go home.
Then it hit her: I can go home–to my family, my house, my bed. They can’t. She never again considered quitting.
Ereth has gotten back plenty. “I used to be a very closed person,” she says. Her husband, Terry, admits to apologizing for her to the neighbors. “People would come over, just trying to be friendly, and Sandy was like, `Yeah, yeah,'” recalls Terry, 42, a technician at a psychiatric hospital. “I had to tell them she was from California and didn’t know how to be neighborly! She’s a lot different now. She talks a lot more.”
Ereth (above) says the real change is that she listens. “Before, I’d ask someone how they were, but I’d be busy thinking about what I was going to make for dinner, or one of my own problems. Now when I ask `How are you?’ I’m really listening. It’s made me a much better person.”
Twelve-year-old Chris (not his real name) took his seat at the piano while Carolyn Ford, then 36, nervously held her breath. But when he completed an almost flawless rendition of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” and the audience broke into applause, Ford started to cry. “I was so proud of him!”
A mother-son moment? Not exactly. Ford (at fight) is a volunteer for the Court Appointed Special Advocate program (CASA); Chris, who was neglected by ms parents and became a ward of the court, has been her charge for the last nine and a half years.
A CASA volunteer pays weekly visits to the child to whom she’s been assigned, meeting with social workers, teachers, and counselors. If a child’s needs are not being met, the volunteer negotiates with the courts to find a solution. But with Chris, Ford tended to his emotional life too: arranging for funding from a foundation to get him piano lessons, driving him to doctor’s appointments, and throwing pizza parties on his birthday.
Ford, a business systems analyst, first got involved with CASA when she was single and worried she’d never have a family of her own. She felt drawn to foster children because they rarely had much happiness in their lives. After an application and screening process, Ford received training in the family-court structure.
Advocating for Chris didn’t come naturally; Ford had always hated controversy. It took her time to work up the nerve to really fight for his fights when it became clear that one foster home was not a good fit for him.
Ford did eventually marry, and she and her husband, Pat, have two young children. But Chris, now 15, remains an important part of her life. He calls her his “special friend.”
And she’s learned enough to change her outlook. “I’m a lot more assertive now,” says Ford. When her daughter Kylie was a newborn, she was hospitalized with an infection. Although she’d been doing well, a new doctor ordered oxygen in the incubator.
“I let them do it–but it bothered me,” says Ford, who’d read that oxygen sometimes results in blindness in newborns. So she called the pediatrician who’d initially cared for Kylie and asked whether the treatment was necessary. It wasn’t.
Ford says she’s also stricter with her own children as a result of her work. “I don’t shower them with material things. And I take them to CASA meetings, because I want them to know that not everybody has two parents and a nice home like they do.”