With all the mass chaos and destruction of character taking place nationally, communities are finding solace and strength in uniting together to make a difference and impacting neighborhoods in a positive light. If you’re looking for a resolution in the new year, make a personal commitment by putting your skills, interests, and empathy towards a community cause and find out how you can make a positive impact in your community by volunteering.
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It’s a busy Wednesday night at the Westerly branch of the Ocean Community YMCA. Parents dropping off their kids for swim practice and gymnastics, people out of work eager to sweat out their stress in one of the exercise classes, and potential new members excited to join for the New Year. Betsy Gleason is one of the friendly faces that greet all who come through the doors as she smiles and says hello behind the front desk.
The phone rings, Betsy answers: “It’s a great day at the Y, this is Betsy, how can I help you?” At 69-years-young and retired Betsy has been a Westerly YMCA volunteer for four years, and for two hours every week she really embraces her volunteer role at the Y and spreads a positive vibe of belonging and community spirit.
“When I retired I wanted to do something that would get me out of the house,” Betsy said. “I had joined the Y as a member and they asked me if I wanted to become a regular volunteer.”
When she first started at the Y, she helped with mailings, filing, stuffing envelopes but as membership has grown she is very much needed at the member service desk answering questions over the phone, helping people sign in, and giving tours to potential new members. She has also enjoyed helping out at the annual race events registering people, assisting at the food table, and even as a flagger making sure people are running in the right direction.
“I totally believe in the Y story and what it gives to the community. What volunteering offers older people keeps you both physically and mentally active,” says Betsy. “It’s about getting out and seeing people.”
Ed Generali, a retired high school guidance counselor was also driven by helping people and the worthwhile mission of a nonprofit organization when he started volunteering for the Jonnycake Center of Westerly, which includes a food pantry, social service agency, and thrift store. He saw an ad in the local paper about a year ago and has been there ever since about 6-10 hours a week assisting families at the food pantry, keeping the shelves stocked with food, and helping to organize all the donations that come into the center.
“There is such a need to feed the hungry,” Ed said. “Volunteers play an important role especially during the holidays when we have Adopt a Family for Thanksgiving, and our Christmas food baskets. I feel so grateful, we have the right purpose at the center and are here to help.”
During the Christmas holiday, more than 500 low-income families were served with gifts that the entire Westerly community comes together to donate and give to the Jonnycake Center for staff and volunteers to organize and distribute to those in need.
Kathy Cappizano used to be a customer at the Jonnycake thrift store. When she retired she wanted to give back to the community and a volunteer opportunity that worked with her schedule. Its been three years and she loves her volunteer work in the clothing room assisting with sorting and organizing all the clothes that are donated.
She also enjoys helping put together the annual Thanksgiving baskets and come spring and summer its inventory time in the thrift store where the old stuff gets recycled and the new treasures appear.
“I like the women I work with, we all want to contribute in some way. The center brings in all different types of people,” Kathy said. “And the volunteers are all working towards the same goal, to improve someone’s life.”
And if volunteering working with four legs instead of two is your passion, the Westerly Animal Shelter has lots of friendly furry faces and something for everyone to enjoy.
“We could not operate without our volunteer staff,” Tammy Loughlin, shelter manager/volunteer coordinator said. “We have three part-time employees for a 7 day a week operation and everyone else getting the work done is a volunteer. Our volunteer staff contributes more than 7,000 hours a year making our shelter a success!”
Its been 15 years for dedicated volunteer Mary Elmore and she still remembers the day she first walked into the old shelter, met a dog named Mel, their mascot, and started walking him. With that many years of volunteer experience notched in her leash, Mary does a little bit of everything. From washing dishes, doing laundry, assisting potential pet adopters, and training new volunteers. She also helps with special needs animals and working with other rescue groups to find loving homes for dogs and cats that need a little bit more attention.
She recently fostered a 12-week old kitten that had sclerosis and was able to find him a forever home through another rescue organization.
“Knowing you are doing something to help animals is wonderful,” Mary said. “Also the comradery and meeting so many people that share your interests, it’s a wonderful group of friends.”
Sara Belchik is another one of the shining examples of a dedicated volunteer, who came to the shelter over seven years ago as a young teenager and now a college student at the University of Illinois can’t’ wait to get back for summers and on college break to work with the animals and help doing a little bit of everything at the shelter.
She remembers tagging along with a friend when she was 12 and because she was so young and first learning at the animal shelter she spent most of her time in the cat room playing with them and getting them socialized to go off to a good home.
“This has been a great leadership opportunity for me, I have such a passion for animals,” Sara said. “It was where everyone that young begins and I fell in love with it.”
She has since graduated to helping Tammy with online adoptions, social media, organizing the animal intake database and with summer camp. This past summer the Westerly Animal Shelter offered a two-week camp for elementary to middle school ages kids to take part in fun activities focusing on the animals, learning about what it takes to run the shelter, helping with cleaning, playing with the dogs and cats, and listening to guest speakers like K9 officers and demonstrations of search and rescue dogs.
Sara assisted with the day to day activities of the summer camp, as well taking pictures and working with the kids to put together a scrapbook of their memories with the animals. “If you love animals, there is something here for everyone.”