Two Hours on the Fourth Sunday Of Every Month

UNDOUBTEDLY it's because my cherished friend is the director of Volunteers for Outreach in our city that I've been snared into serving in such an immense variety of positions that I often feel like the blind date who is expected to substitute in any emergency. I scold myself, ``Don't you know how to say no?''

The majority of requests for my help center around getting people to appointments, or they have something to do with food. Meals on Wheels. Or the food pantry, which has begun to depress me as I search through the donated supplies for some delicacy, a taste out of my childhood, to add to the packages of dried beans and peas, cereal and potatoes, for a weary woman with children who know there's no Santa Claus.

Recently my friend came up with an unusual request for my time. On a steady basis, Beatrice needed me for two hours on the fourth Sunday of every month. These days, she told me, there are many organizations who are competing for volunteers. There aren't enough people who'll sign away their Sunday on a steady basis.

It didn't do any good to protest that I was up to my ears and drowning in volunteer work. There aren't enough hours in the week to do all I've signed up for, I said. Beatrice knows how to get what she wants. She wouldn't have her job if she didn't.

What Beatrice wanted now was someone to sit at the reception desk in the IMCA lobby to register the visitors. The IMCA is a haven for elderly people who can no longer cope on their own with grocery shopping, baking, laundry, and other necessities of life. It's a low-rent place, if there is such a thing in this day and age. The residents have a meager income and no one to care for them.

What Beatrice wanted was someone to sit at the reception desk to make a list - not of the visitors on this Sunday afternoon - but of the residents whom they were visiting.

The point was, some residents never had visitors. Month after month, year after year, they never enjoyed the expectatation of someone coming to visit.

Believe me, Beatrice assured me, that can be depressing. She wants to know who they are. Which ones? So she keeps lists to discover who is never on the lists of those who have visitors. Then she assigns other volunteers to ``adopt'' one person at the IMCA and to visit occasionally. Play games, work puzzles, chat, and listen - just be a friend.

I've found there aren't many callers. They hardly disturb my reading.

Right now, from my desk in the lobby I can hear Harold singing in his room, loudly, slightly off-key. He likes country and Western music and his all-time favorite is ``Let The Rest of The World Go By.'' He is 93. His ambition is to sing a TV commercial.

Across the corridor from him in Household 5, Beulah has her door firmly closed as she listens to a symphony by one of her B's: Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms. She's a rigid woman with crisp hair which looks ironed into place. Only 81, she customarily presides over conversation in the sunny corner of the big lounge as if it were a courtroom.

Now Annie approaches my desk, her head hanging to one side while she buys a single stamp, then inspects every bag of candy hanging on the display rack, seemingly having a difficult time making a decision, yet she never as far as I know has bought anything except lemon drops.

``This is a beautiful day,'' she says shyly. ``Not too warm. Not too cool. Just right, ainna?''

One thing that impresses me in this home for loners is their politeness. Without being obvious about it, they keep track of each other. They know just where to look for the person who receives a rare telephone call.

I wear a name tag, of course. Everybody calls me by my first name and, in turn, I do the same because I can only remember the first names. Their era was the one in which Beulah, Adeline, Agnes, Thea, Annie, Gladys, and many Biblical names predominated.

Now the grandfather clock at the foot of the stairway chimes the hour. That means Stanley will appear, briefcase in hand, and he will sit in the south lounge for 15 minutes, never more, then he'll walk with this unopened briefcase back to his room. Soft-spoken and polite, he doesn't get angry easily and no one gets angry with him.

Presently, ``Let The Rest of The World Go By'' approaches along the dining-room hallway which means Harold anticipates the ``coffee or juice'' break.

Passing the lobby doorway he beams at me. From my first day here he has treated me like a person special to him. He was an acquaintance of mine from my days of delivering Meals on Wheels. He recognized me during my first Sunday here.

``You used to bring me the best beef stew,'' he told me, making me feel as if I'd personally purchased the beef and prepared it for him alone.

If I weren't needed at this reception desk, and if I had the time to take on the assignment of being a friend to one of the IMCA residents, I would hope to be matched to a person like Harold. It would be easy to be his friend which, I suppose, is what makes him one of the residents who doesn't require an ``assigned'' friend. His former neighbors drop in, bringing him cookies.

How do you go about being such a friend?

It's rather a delicate move because you simply can't enter a private room and say, ``I've been assigned to be your friend.''

Beatrice instructs, ``Don't go barging into this project. Approach it as if it's accidental that you are becoming acquainted, and isn't it fun? Not everyone is a natural as a visitor. Nor as a host.''

She tells the volunteer, ``If their door is open and you notice something in the room, like a crossword puzzle book, or a flowering plant - anything! - make a remark about it, and continue from there.'' Remember, she continues, the resident may have no experience in welcoming a visitor so it's up to the new ``friend'' to make the moves.

HOLIDAYS. Sundays. These are lonely times if no one ever visits. How about taking your new friend for a doughnut at the restaurant in the next block? If a confined person can have a steady arm to lean on, what a treat that can be! Just to get out in the world with other people!

Now my two hours are almost over. The afternoon has passed quickly, but before I put my name tag in the receptionist's drawer, I am drawn into two short conversations with visitors who are now on their way out.

First, the stalwart retired banker who is a stranger to the volunteer world tells me he feels he's been a failure as a ``friend'' because Luke wouldn't converse with him. I tell him, ``But it's years since he'd had a visitor. He doesn't know how to chat.'' I add, ``I'll bet he'll be bragging tonight at supper about his caller today.''

Then a former schoolteacher who had felt she had enough time to take on two new friends bubbled over with delight, telling me, ``Just think, they both told me they loved me.''

I could have told her this was not unusual. I could have told her that Beatrice's plan of happiness for these lonely ones had turned into a recipe for love. And I could have assured her that one of the satisfactions of being a volunteer is the warmth of the gratitude that is showered on you.

How to be a friend? You'll learn very fast.

You'll have help from the one you're supposed to help.

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