The Soul of Community: A 90-Year-Old Volunteer Mentor

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January 24, 2012; Source: Chicago Tribune (The (Springfield) State Journal-Register) | When we’re all 90, let’s hope that we have something in us like the life force of Anita Hayes.  Hayes is a 90-year-old volunteer at Ball Charter School in Springfield, Ill. Since she was 80, she has volunteered three days a week at the school to mentor first- and second-grade readers and to generally help out. Ten years later, she’s not cutting back on her activity.

What emerges from this story is a dimension of volunteerism that often gets lost in all the hype and glitz attached to the telegenic bands of young volunteers with stipends that many people see in various AmeriCorps-funded organizations. Remember that there are over 60 million Americans who volunteer regularly and most don’t get much publicity for their work. They volunteer because voluntary service means something important to their communities, their employers, and to themselves personally. Sometimes those volunteer moments are as meaningful and fulfilling as anything that happens in our daily work and family lives.

For 90-year old Anita Hayes, volunteer work has been restorative and fortifying. She didn’t have any teaching experience when she offered her help to Ball Charter School and its first- and second-grade teacher Erin Willenborg. She started her volunteer work in 1998 as a way of dealing with her husband’s death.

“She was lonely, and she really had no purpose anymore,” said Willenborg. “She decided to volunteer, and ever since then, that’s what’s kept her going. It kind of helped her overcome that.”

The fortifying power of service to one’s neighbors and communities—the meaning that true voluntarism and giving brings to someone’s life—was at work with Anita Hayes. Then, two years ago, her volunteerism stopped, she didn’t come to the school and didn’t communicate with anyone.

She had suffered a stroke. But, according to Willenborg, “All that whole time she was gone, she taught herself how to speak again by reading children’s literature out loud in hopes that she could get back to the classroom.”

Now she is back at the school volunteering again and doing so with no less energy and enthusiasm than she had before the stroke. Our newest hero.—Rick Cohen