The Highest Compliment

I like to know why people do things, so when I spoke to several volunteers last week as part of some stories I was working on, I asked each one of them, “Why do you do it?”

They gave me a lot of great answers. There are exceptional people in this town who dedicate their lives to local organizations like the American Red Cross, Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, Mt. Carmel Center of Excellence, and the Rocky Mountain Field Institute. It was a very humbling week for me.

That got me thinking about my own experiences with volunteering over the years. Why did I do it? There had to be a reason. Like Cori Tanner, a volunteer for the Red Cross, told me, “None of us is Mother Teresa. We have to get something out of this.” Was she right? Why did I volunteer and what did I get out of it?

I thought about my own Red Cross volunteer experiences. Years ago, living in California’s Mojave Desert, I wanted to be a paramedic. I found out that I should be an EMT, an emergency medical technician, first, and then decide if training to become a paramedic made sense for me. I went back to school and got my EMT certification and then I tried to get a job. I quickly found that EMTs don’t make much money, and the starting salary was a small fraction of what I was making as a bartender on Edwards Air Force Base. What to do?

I took a volunteer position working on the base as an EMT for the American Red Cross. That way, I kept my bartender pay and still got to work as an EMT several times a week, on my schedule. I wasn’t on call and I didn’t do any overnight shifts, which would have impacted my job, but I got to discover what it was like to work alongside medical staff at the base hospital. I started out in the pediatric clinic, then moved to the emergency room. It was exciting – an amazing experience, really. Back then, Red Cross volunteers on military bases could do a lot. I weighed and measured the babies that came into the clinic, and took their temperatures. After a while I was giving shots. In the ER, I helped with all kinds of things: bandaging, casting, stitching, and anything else I felt confident enough to do and the doctors and other EMTs trusted me to do. My most memorable patient was a guy who had been in a motorcycle accident. I had to scrub all the pavement out of his skin with what looked like a Brillo pad – and with no anesthetic. I felt awful doing it. Surely it must have been incredibly painful for him! He could sense how I felt and actually talked me through it, reassuring me that it would be okay and we could get through the experience together. After all, he reminded me, nothing I could do to him was going to be any worse than what his commanding officer was going to do to him for “damaging government property,” he joked.

I learned an important lesson as an EMT: I could never be a paramedic. Working with the adults was just fine, but whenever they brought in an injured kid I would literally get sick to my stomach. I’d feel faint and have to sit down. I can’t handle seeing hurt kids, I discovered, and when you’re a paid EMT or paramedic you don’t get to choose your patients. I gave up on my paramedic dream, but the American Red Cross had allowed me to try on a medical career long enough to figure out that it wasn’t a good fit for me.

Years later I became a CASA volunteer here in Colorado Springs. They have a wonderful training program and ongoing support for their volunteers. As a court-appointed special advocate for neglected and abused children in the Pikes Peak area, I got to help out kids, which I loved, but again, after a while it got to me, seeing kids who had been physically injured or who just were not being properly cared for by their parents and other caregivers. It was too much for me to handle, and after a few years I had to stop doing it.

I had more volunteer experiences over the years, and each time I came away with more knowledge about the world and the people in it. Sometimes what I discovered made me more compassionate, and sometimes it made me very angry. I also learned about myself – what I truly cared about, what I loved doing with my time and my life, and what I could never do – no matter how much I cared. We can’t all be paramedics.

One thing stuck: sponsorships. I’ve sponsored children with monthly donations for many years, which has allowed me to help kids without passing out or having nightmares about it. My longest sponsorship was for a little girl named Mercy who lived in a village in Kenya. Mercy was just six years old in 2001, when we met through photos and letters. She would draw pictures for me and Christian Children’s Fund (now Child Fund) would send them to me, along with her letters and photographs of Mercy with her family. In addition to the small monthly sponsorship that helped pay for her food, clothing, and medical care, I would send her extra money for special occasions, like her birthday, or Christmas. The family never kept this money to themselves. They shared it with the whole village. Fifty bucks would pay for a whole holiday meal for everyone, and they would still have enough left over to buy Mercy a new dress, and buy some staples to put away when food was low. I learned a lot in my communications with Mercy and her family. When I lamented to her about the drought here in Colorado, she responded, “We are suffering a drought as well and there is not enough food. How is the drought affecting you and your family?” I didn’t tell her about my brown lawn.

I corresponded with Mercy for thirteen years. A couple of years ago I got a letter from Christian Children’s Fund. They wanted to speak with me on the phone. I had never spoken to anyone there on the phone. What was going on?

It was the worst possible news. Mercy had pneumonia and passed away suddenly. How does a 19-year-old child die from pneumonia? They don’t have the medical resources, they told me. I won’t pretend to know what a parent who has lost a child of their own goes through, but I felt pain, and sadness, and tremendous guilt. My stupid brown lawn and whatever else I was dealing with…and this little girl couldn’t get basic medical help. The lady at Christian Children’s Fund expressed her sympathy and told me, “Susan, there was nothing you could do. Please know that you did make Mercy’s life better.”

I’m sponsoring two little girls now, a cousin of Mercy’s in that same Kenyan village, and another little girl in Vietnam. I send them letters and postcards and I never tell them about my trivial problems here in Colorado Springs.

Cori Tanner was right: None of us is Mother Teresa. What I gained from working as an EMT, and for CASA, and through helping out Mercy — and now Martha and Diu — is infinitely more valuable than the time and money I gave up to get it. And those words of the lady who called to give me the bad news about Mercy ring in my head. “You made her life better.” I can’t imagine a higher compliment.

This column first appeared in an edited version in the September 14, 2016 Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

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