Since 2005 I've been a volunteer driver for the Meals On Wheels program in and around Berkeley, California. I had no idea what kind of impact I could have on peoples' lives on a weekly basis when I first started, and since meeting and talking to the dozens of elderly and disabled men and women on my routes, I can't imagine a time when I wouldn't be a volunteer in some way or another.
I was once asked by Mrs. C, who lived in a small house on a beautifully tree-lined street just North of the Berkeley campus, to hang a picture on her wall. The nail was already in place, and I hung the wire over it and adjusted the picture so it was straight. On my way out, I noticed a framed Life Magazine cover. I asked her about it, and she told me it was of her in the late 1930s. She used to live in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, and when I told her I grew up not too far away from there, her face lit up and we spent the next few minutes talking about the area she grew up in and the city she loved so much. She moved to Berkeley in the mid-80s and complained to me every week about the cold. I can still see her wrapped in a blanket and wearing a wool hat in the middle of summer.
I learned to be patient when knocking because Mr. H is hard of hearing and Mrs. G has bad knees. I know Mrs. R will greet me with a God bless you, Mrs. W will ask me where I've been because she's hungry, and when I ask Mrs. J how she is, she'll respond with "just waiting on my meals on wheels."
Back in 2006, I used to deliver to a Mr. W on the first floor of an apartment building in North Berkeley. Each day he opened the door with a beaming smile, his hands out in front of him ready to receive his food. Mr. W was an elderly black man, blind, and about as happy as anyone I've ever met. His forehead showed no wrinkles of fear or concern, his eyes wide and glazed as they wandered, his soul rich with a life and experience I had no knowledge of, but one I'm sure could fill a Dostoevsky size book and tell of Hemingway-like stories. Each day, after placing the food on his hands, Mr. W would ask me in for a game of chess. I would tell him I had other meals to deliver, and he would understand. He always told me to come by another day when I had more time. I said I would, but never did. I don't have many regrets when I consider my years with Meals On Wheels, but not accepting the invitation to a game of chess, and I'm sure what would have been an interesting conversation, is definitely one I'll never forgive myself for.
Volunteer-based organizations are feeling the economic crunch along with everybody else, and they aren't expecting any bail-outs. With the decline in staff and financial assistance, organizations around the country are looking for new methods of raising the necessary funds.
This last October 17th, I rode my bike in the first annual Wheels for Meals fundraiser for the Alameda County Meals On Wheels program, along with my wife and a friend. It was a perfect day for a ride, the cool morning giving way to a warm afternoon in Livermore, California. Over 400 riders registered for the event, and it was a great opportunity to donate to the program while getting some fresh air and exercise on a beautiful fall Saturday.
There are hundreds of rides, runs, marathons and half marathons across the country raising funds for programs like Meals On Wheels and for vital research into cures for diseases like diabetes (Tour de Cure), lymphoma and leukemia (Americas Most Beautiful Ride) and AIDS, (Aids Life Cycle -- A 7 day ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles), many of which offer training and fitness advice.
The decision to undertake a challenge like riding a century (100 miles) or running a marathon (26 miles) can be extremely rewarding. The hours of training and the sacrifice of time, money and energy seem daunting at first, but pale in comparison to the satisfaction of crossing the finish line knowing you've done something not only for the for yourself but for a greater cause.
Want to help out where help is desperately needed? Have some time to give, but not the money? Maybe you have a few extra dollars, but not a minute to spare. Either way, volunteering or donating to an organization is a great way to participate in the age old and sometimes lost art of helping someone in need.
Consider volunteering or taking part in a run or ride and become a new age philanthropist. In an era when we rely heavily on donations for what many consider basic necessities, volunteers are the new foot soldiers in an army determined to keep alive the goodwill behind many organizations that make it their business to help others.
Spending a little time each week volunteering has become such a part of my routine, I don't think of it as anything more than what I do on Tuesday mornings between 10:30 and 12:00. I may never know what it feels like to write a big check for charity, but I know what it feels like to receive a genuine and heartfelt thank you from someone who truly means it. I hope you too can feel that satisfaction and accept the challenge of becoming part of the new generation of philanthropists. Meanwhile, I'll be looking out for the next Mr. W, and this time you can be sure I won't pass up that game of chess.
To find an organization to donate to or volunteer with, visit:
To find a ride or run visit:
Most comfortable on a bar stool, Albert Garcia grew up in Los Angeles and attended the University of California and the University of London. He lives with his wife in Northern California, loves to travel and writes with a Pilot Q7.
ABOUT ALBERT GARCIA
more about albert garcia
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
12.25.09 @ 10:06a
I used to deliver Meals on Wheels, too, and I agree with everything you've said about the experiences. Now I volunteer with ACORN, but my main job is full-time political activist and campaign phone banker. Yes, we can!!!
12.28.09 @ 12:58p
ALBERT! How's Cali, old buddy? And good on ya for all of this.
12.28.09 @ 1:13p
Albert, thanks for reminding me that I need to get more involved. A friend of mine gave me the book: How many people does it take to make a difference? by Dan Zadra and Kobi Yamada, which is a great resource for helping people figure out their strengths and motivate them to do something. There are several inspirational quotes, challenging questions, and facts that inspire. In it, this one seems appropriate to add to your discussion, "Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose we know not, though sometimes we sense it. But we know from daily life that we exist for other people first of all, for whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends." (Albert Einstein) I teach inner-city high school students English, coach our J.V. girls softball team, and co-sponsor our Earth club. I'm amazed at how many kids are involved in our school. But when we're not in session, something is missing from my life--helping others. My new year's resolution is to find a cause where I can serve others to the best of my ability. Thanks for writing your column, you've inspired ME.