The gift of experience

In the realm of volunteering, the older one gets the more valuable one's assistance can be.

'Whenever anyone asks me to volunteer for something, I am always afraid to say no because I'm afraid I won't be asked again," says 64-year-old Chana Loecher. With a hefty roster of volunteer activity under her belt, the Har Nof mother of eight and grandmother of 10 has always found the time to fit hessed into her schedule. For example, for the past 24 years she has been a driver for Melabev, a non-profit agency for the elderly with memory and cognitive impairments that provides support services for their family and caregivers. A friend who was a driver for the organization had asked her if she had an hour a week to spare. "Everybody does," says Loecher, so she hopped on board. Twice a week she drives people with Alzheimer's disease to and from the Melabev community club at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center. "Sometimes it's a challenge just to get them in and out of the car," she says, "but when you love people, you find creative ways to make things work." Another hour of her week is spent working at a Har Nof charity, where she helps sell second-hand clothing. "It's a great service to the community," she says. But on a grander scale, Loecher says that "If you're going to do something, do something that makes a dent." A swimming instructor by profession, 13 years ago Loecher had taught a friend's autistic child to swim by showing him how to close his mouth under water. "That's the whole basis of swimming," she says - "feeling safe under water." Inspired to do more to help such children, she came up with a plan. "I had always wanted to swim the Kinneret," she says. So she dove into the project and rallied people to sponsor her. In 1996 Loecher swam across Lake Kinneret and raised enough money to help Alut, the Israeli Society for Autistic Children, build a group home. A year later Loecher set off on another challenge, this time on wheels. "I have something just for you," a friend had suggested. "A bike ride from Jerusalem to Eilat to help raise money for the Alyn Hospital." At age 52, her first reaction was "I'm a grandmother. I should be knitting bootees, not riding a bicycle across the country." But her second reaction was "I'm from Holland, I was raised on a bicycle. And it's for Alyn, for the kids" [of the pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation center]. So she borrowed a bicycle from one of the neighborhood children and began to practice for the five-day ride. "I had never cycled in Jerusalem with all its hills and inclines," she says. "At first, I couldn't even get up the hill in Har Nof. But then I thought, those kids at Alyn have a challenge with every step they take and I'm complaining about getting up a hill?" She completed the trip, as well as a later Alyn bike trek from Ma'alot to Jerusalem. In addition, Loecher says she had the thrill of "pedaling through the country and seeing and experiencing as much as possible." In the realm of volunteering, there is no limit on age or energy level. In fact, the older one gets, the more valuable one's assistance can be. According to Naomi Adelman, the coordinator of volunteer services at Melabev, of the organization's 212 volunteers, 30 are seniors. "The older they are, the more experience they have," she says. "And when they help someone, they derive tremendous satisfaction. The more they give, the more they get." The requirements for a good volunteer come from the heart. You need patience and a kind, giving nature. "You have to love people," says Adelman. But you don't have to have physical energy, she stresses. If someone wants to volunteer for an organization, there is a wide range of tasks one can perform, from helping to plan activities or feeding patients to answering the phone or stuffing envelopes. Just smiling at an elderly person or reading to a sick child can make a major "dent" in their lives. When it comes to age and energy levels, Ruth Richman is a stellar example. She made aliya from the US with her husband when she was 78. An active volunteer with Melabev, Hadassah and the Moreshet Israel Synagogue, Richman, now 95, sets the bar for dedication and inspiration. "Ruth is positive, energetic and always on time," says Leah Abramowitz, co-founder of Melabev and director of the Institute for Studies on Aging. A dynamo inside and out, the youthful nonagenarian is always wearing a smile - and high heels. Elder volunteers are a great asset because they have acquired a great deal of skills and life experience, says Abramowitz. "Research has shown that the older volunteers are responsible, take their work seriously and are happy to have the opportunity to be part of a team." And, she adds, they stay healthier being on a schedule. "Many organizations, such as Shaare Zedek and Yad Sarah, could not exist without their elder volunteers," she says. They can also set a wonderful example for the younger generation. Toby Shuster says that her three grandchildren have been volunteering since they were 12 years old. She hopes that she has served as a role model. They do grocery shopping for elderly people and work with autistic children by feeding them, reading to them and helping at the special summer camps. The co-chairperson of the Jerusalem Fund for Alyn for the past two years, the 72-year-old Shuster has been volunteering for Alyn for 10 years and in other spheres all her life. "I feel that there are many worthwhile causes, not just one," she says. For example, she volunteered for the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind. She raised puppies, boarded others' dogs when the puppy raisers went out of town, and helped raise funds for the organization. And every Saturday for two years she walked a blind woman to the park to let the woman's guide dog run free. "The dog enjoyed the extra exercise, and the woman enjoyed the company," she says. And Shuster enjoyed the opportunity to do her part in helping others. As Adelman recounts, when she expresses her appreciation to her volunteers, they invariably say, "Don't thank us; we should thank you."