Almost 30 years ago, I had the notion that I might support the community I love by volunteering to serve on the City of Hood River’s planning commission.  Those three years were educational — I learned so much about land use planning. But the assignment was also grueling and often thankless; it seemed that someone was always angry with the decisions we made. I thought I grew a thick skin, but when an audience member shook her finger at me and yelled, I realized that my skin would never be thick enough to withstand the criticism. 

Thank goodness for my fellow commissioners, and then Planning Director Cindy Walbridge, who helped me weather the storms. Today, I’m thankful there are other citizens in our community willing to volunteer for city, county and port positions. I may have given up my “career” as a politician, but I’ve found other, more enjoyable, ways to volunteer in my community. When I retired from my work as an elementary school teacher, I knew I still wanted some connection with that work and the wonderful school where I had taught. SMART (Start Making a Reader Today) has proved to be just the balm I needed. Every Tuesday, my husband and I read with young Mid Valley students. We are each assigned two students, with whom we each spend a half hour. The kids get to select which books they want to read (or have read to them), and each week they get to take a book home “for keeps.”  Because we work with the same students every week, we really get to know them. We celebrate their accomplishments as they begin to recognize sight words and come to realize that those squiggles on a page are filled with meaning.

Equally meaningful and entertaining is the work my husband and I do as volunteers for FISH. Every two weeks at 8 a.m., we meet our FISH friends at the food bank, and proceed to tell jokes and visit as we unload the truck from The Oregon Food Bank. There are no “assigned” jobs, but we all have obvious skills — brawny box carriers, fork lift drivers, freezer organizers and more. I have little in the skill department, but I excel at chit-chat. On Sunday mornings, we continue our work as volunteers for FISH when we pick up bakery donations from the local Safeway. The bakery workers are friendly and helpful, and as my husband and I load up the car, we estimate how many pounds of cakes, bagels, bread and more that we’ll deliver to the food bank’s warehouse. We’ve gotten pretty good at estimating — on a normal Sunday, it averages about 50 pounds, although once in a while, the load requires a run home for a second vehicle.

Though I worked as a teacher for many years, my life now as a retired person allows me to pursue writing as a vocation, an avocation and another great way to volunteer. Recently, the organization Art of Community (responsible for the wonderful public art now on display throughout Hood River) asked me if I would be willing to write about their organization. It’s been a fun assignment. I’m getting to know the art and the talented artists who create it. I’m also volunteering to write about the Columbia Gorge Community College’s literacy program. Local residents serve as volunteer tutors and mentors for people in the community who are in need of help — studying for the United States citizenry test, filling out a resume, working on a GED diploma, getting assistance studying biology and more. In my capacity as a volunteer writer, I have the wonderful task of interviewing some of those generous tutors and telling their stories. Recently, I met with two volunteers who are doing amazing work.

Michael Stephenson, who retired from a career in public service, has this to say about his work with CGCC: “It’s a way to give back to the community. In a selfish sense, it’s extremely rewarding. You get to meet some of the nicest, most grounded people; folks that have made the decision to better themselves … you can’t beat that.”

Jim Scarborough, a retired general surgeon, spends three hours a week helping a woman learn English while she also studies medical terminology, sociology, writing and more. When he’s not tutoring, Jim volunteers with Habitat. At 76, he says, “I’d hate to sit around doing nothing.” 

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Soroptimist Hood River’s “Women of Distinction” awards ceremony. The room was literally filled with Hood River’s super volunteers. Everywhere I looked there was someone who had either won the award or is deserving of it. This year’s recipients — Graciela Gomez, Rachel Larive and Shelley Toon Lindberg — have all worked diligently to make our local communities such wonderful places to live. We thank them, and the scores of others, for whom volunteering is an integral part of their lives.  

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