It is a gift many people long for but few ever ask for directly. It can't be boxed or wrapped or tied with a bow. Nor can it be bought or returned. Although it carries no price tag, it often holds great value and meaning - making it, in its quiet way, priceless.
What is it? The gift of time. In this season of bountiful giving, as shoppers rush frantically from store to store, looking for the perfect object for each person on a list, the intangible gift of oneself is largely forgotten.
For recipients hungry for a friendly voice, a helping hand, a comforting hug, a leisurely conversation, or a shared laugh, time can be the most precious offering of all. The rewards become even more meaningful when givers go for the long run, not simply volunteering during the holidays but establishing year-round relationships.
Just ask Melanie Bilazarian, a mother of five in Andover, Mass. And just ask Carroll Whitaker, a retired accountant living at Academy Manor Nursing Home in Andover. Nearly every week for six months, Mrs. Bilazarian and her children have visited Mr. Whitaker and others, bringing day-brightening conversation, caring, and cheer.
"It's nice to have them here," Whitaker, a widower, says with a smile. "I don't have many people come in and see me. When you don't get out at all, this means a lot."
The children, ranging in age from 9 to 3, eagerly greet other residents as they head down the hall to Whitaker's room. He is one of the residents they have unofficially "adopted" as part of a "friendly visitor" program sponsored by two groups, the Andover Senior Center and Family Services in nearby Lawrence.
Nearly 60 volunteers visit nursing homes, assisted living programs, and private homes on an ongoing basis. As program coordinator Olivia Schellepi explains, "They build up this wonderful bond of friendship and caring."
That bond becomes evident as nine-year-old Talene and six-year-old Ani read Christmas poems to Whitaker in the lobby. Other residents watch with interest.
"We don't realize how many people, if their spouse dies and they have no children, are alone," says Bilazarian. "A lot of other families are spread out. Children live far away and can only visit a few times a year."
For Bilazarian, who home-schools her children, volunteering is a longstanding interest. Prior to her involvement with the friendly-visitor program, she ran a monthly senior luncheon program at her church.
"People have misperceptions of the elderly," she says. "Someone like Carroll is so inspiring. He really does have uplifting advice for the children each time we visit."
Adds Talene, "It's really enjoyable. You really create a relationship. It grows and grows and gets pretty big."
Such connections also benefit those who live alone. Victoria Onanian, a former office worker and professional singer, rarely leaves her small one-bedroom apartment in Boston anymore. Most days, her only companion is her 13-year-old black-and-white cat, Mimi.
But breaking her isolation is Liz DuPont, a database manager who phones Ms. Onanian several times a week and visits regularly. Three years ago, DuPont signed up with Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, a national organization that matches volunteers with low-income older people who live alone.
"We step in as a surrogate family," says Barbara Hescock, director of development. Volunteers make three or four visits a month. "That is true commitment."
DuPont first met Onanian on Mother's Day in 1998. The two liked each other, and DuPont began weekly visits. "We have a lot in common," she says. "I'm a musician, I have cats. I'm almost like an adopted granddaughter. We kid each other a lot. A family thing develops from it if you've been together a couple years."
Visiting Onanian, she says, is "so easy to do. She lives just a couple blocks away. If she needs a dozen eggs, it's a big deal for her to get them. If she calls me, it's 15 minutes. She's nice company, too."
The pleasure is mutual. "When I'm home alone most of the time, it's really a nice break to see Liz," Onanian says. "It's a big help to me."
On a December afternoon, the two sit at a small round table in Onanian's apartment, making a shopping list. "We need cat food," says Onanian.
To which DuPont replies, "Write Purina so I don't forget. You'll have to list the kinds Mimi likes." Later, DuPont will place the order via her computer for home delivery.
But groceries tell only part of the story. "People need more than just food," DuPont says. "Hearts starve, too."
Emphasizing the need for connections with others, Ms. Hescock adds, "People need conversation - hearing another person's voice and engaging them in conversation. They have a lot to say and no one to share it with a lot of times."
Volunteers in her program are typically in their 30s and 40s. "A lot of people are looking for an opportunity to give back," she says. "For whatever reason, their social conscience gets developed in their 30s and 40s."
For 14 years, Karen Jess-Lindsley of Orinda, Calif., has been volunteering at the Bay Area Women's and Children's Center in San Francisco. Located in a small storefront in the city's low-income Tenderloin district, the center serves people with a variety of needs.
Sometimes Ms. Jess-Lindsley helps mothers who need clothes for themselves or diapers and formula for their babies. Other times she plays an advocacy role, testifying at City Hall or meeting with county supervisors. Whatever the need, she finds satisfaction in having a long-term relationship with the center and its clients.
Who is the giver and who is the receiver in these relationships? Roles work both ways.
Speaking of the time she spends at the nursing home, Bilazarian says, "Most visits, we're the ones who leave inspired and touched. The relationships are your reward."
Leon Ginsberg, a professor of social work at the University of South Carolina, emphasizes the importance of giving of oneself all year, not just during the holidays.
"A great New Year's resolution would be to volunteer five or 10 hours a month in the community," he says. "Even just resolving to volunteer for one hour every month could make a difference."
Jess-Lindsley offers this perspective on volunteer commitments. "We always say time is in short supply," she says. "But it's about how we choose to use our time."
Why do she and other long-term volunteers do this?
"It gets to an underlying philosophy that we are all members of a community of humanity, and it's up to each one of us to give in whatever way we can," she says. "It doesn't matter what you have to give. Everybody gives in their own way. It might be helping a neighbor, a friend, an organization. It's not something you do that's anything special. It's just a way of life."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society