Working with Meals on Wheels volunteers in Lewisburg brings a certain, intangible satisfaction to Cindy Walker.

“Since this Meals on Wheels program comes out of RiverWoods nursing care facility, no volunteers can come into the building during the pandemic to help pack the meals. The work that the volunteers used to do is now done by me,” Walker said. “I miss them for that reason and because they became my friends, my coworkers.”

Especially during the anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic, local experts agree volunteering gives us a way to help others even while improving our own outlook.

Volunteering renews Walker’s faith in people, she said, because of their unselfish desire to help others.

“Volunteering gives people something meaningful to do, alone, with a friend, spouse or family member,” she said. “During the pandemic of 2020, here at Meals on Wheels, volunteers delivered 6,000 meals in a four-month period. That’s a lot of food.”

Joanne Troutman, president and CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way, pointed out that isolation and uncertainty caused by the pandemic have resulted in heightened feelings of depression and stress—which can be alleviated by volunteering.

“It can be hard not to dwell on the negative and sad things happening in the world,” she said. “Even people who have historically not struggled with their mental health are finding themselves depressed and worrying. From a very basic perspective, volunteering shifts our focus from thinking about ‘self’ and our own struggles to thinking about others. Volunteering has been shown to have a positive effect on mental health and, as a result, physical health as well.”

Focus on what you have

Especially when the problem is so big you don’t know where to start, it’s easy to focus on things you don’t have rather than the things you have, said Nancy Lawton-Kluck, chief philanthropy officer of Geisinger Health Foundation.

“Volunteering reminds me that I have so much and that, if I’m able to give of what I have to help somebody else, it completely changes my mindset,” she said. “For me personally, I’ve had many people who have reached out, especially during COVID.”

More than 1,200 people donated to Geisinger who had never donated there before, Lawton-Kluck said. The hospital received donations of food, snacks, supplies and money. Encouraging notes to staff members were “pasted all over the walls.” Almost $650,000 was donated and used for patient care, staff support and lab equipment to help with testing. Hundreds of thousands of personal protective equipment, from masks to gloves to face shields, were brought to the hospital. Employees even created an assistance fund to help colleagues suffering from pandemic effects.

“It was one of those weird situations where, on the one hand there was so much negative news and stuff you didn’t want to see, but on the other side people kept stepping up and providing support and encouragement and notes and financial support,” Lawton-Kluck said. “I mean, it was absolutely inspiring.”

Helping neighbors

A 16-week group workshop called Getting Ahead in the Valley helps participants create their own plan for stabilizing their lives, building healthy relationships and setting goals, said Cynthia Peltier, director of the CommUnity Zone, in Lewisburg. Two key areas where volunteers can help are to be matched as a participant’s ally and to help with the weekly distribution of food boxes.

COVID-19 restrictions and furloughs have hit Getting Ahead participants hard.

“Many of our first 13 families had already been living paycheck to paycheck,” Peltier said. “Now, like so many, they are in danger of being unable to provide for themselves in even the most basic ways.”

Golden Rule Love Inc., in Milton, partners with local churches to respond to a variety of needs, from loneliness to household help.

“There was, especially during COVID, a lot of fear and anxiety in the community,” said Julie Tyson, office administrator. “We’ve had an increase in people reaching out.”

Like others, Tyson sees how volunteering lifts both the person being helped and the one giving help.

“Everybody has that desire to help somebody make them feel better about themselves,” she said. “We all have a desire to share Christ’s love, where we can help fulfill somebody else’s need.”

Walker also finds that, in volunteering, “it’s all about giving and, in giving, receiving.” She finds herself worrying about finding a replacement when a Meals on Wheels volunteer needs to resign.

“But almost like magic, the phone will ring, and it’s someone wanting to volunteer,” she said. “It happens all the time.”

Ways you can volunteer

Interested in taking advantage of the healing effects of volunteering to soothe your own anxiety and get your mind off the negativity and drama of our pandemic-laced lives? It’s do-able, even now.

“Admittedly, finding volunteer opportunities during pandemic time can be challenging,” said Joanne Troutman, president and CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way. “Many organizations have had to shift their focus and limit the number of volunteers they take in order to take infection control measures, especially if those volunteers classify as vulnerable demographically.”

Nevertheless, Troutman came up with four possibilities:

- Find a food pantry. Go to Central Pennsylvania Food Bank’s website (or call 717-564-1700) and find one near you. Food pantries are always looking for volunteers and are in high demand right now.

- Meals on Wheels programs are always looking for drivers. Try Selinsgrove Meals on Wheels (570-374-6420) or RiverWoods Meals on Wheels (570-522-1934 or Cynthia.Walker@AlbrightCare.org).

- Look for the weekend backpack program that provides food for low income families in local schools. Nearly every school district has at least one of these programs and they always need people to help shop, pack and donate.

- If you can’t commit to a regularly scheduled opportunity, contact your favorite non-profit and see if they need to have any projects done.

“Also, volunteering doesn’t need to be a formal event or complicated,” Troutman said. “More and more, people are taking it upon themselves to do spontaneous things like paint kindness rocks and put them out in the community; send cards to seniors who are isolated at assisted living and skilled nursing facilities; pick up trash and pull weeds in your neighborhood; shop for an elderly neighbor.

“These are things that many people can do easily and at low or no cost. They are also a way to get kids more involved and connected to the community.”

The volunteer department at Geisinger started accepting volunteers again in July, after establishing reliable protocols to establish a safe environment, said Nancy Lawton-Kluck, chief philanthropy officer of Geisinger Health Foundation.

Some volunteer areas include helping patients find their way around the hospital or navigate between waiting rooms and offices.

For more information, visit www.geisinger.org/volunteer or call Tina McDowell, director of volunteer services at Geisinger, 570-271-6030.

Lawton-Kluck also pointed out the need for volunteering beyond pandemic situations, including food and housing programs and safety programs like the Child Advocacy Center (570-473-8475)

  “I think COVID has really awakened our community to the needs that exist,” she said. “But there’s a continuing need, so once COVID starts to die down, there will always be ways we can plug people in to help.”

People interested in helping in their communities might enjoy working with Getting Ahead in the Valley, a program that helps participants stabilize their lives and set goals.

“We run a robust food distribution system for the families taking part that requires many hands to run,” said Cynthia Peltier, director of the CommUnity Zone, in Lewisburg. “We are constantly looking for allies for these graduates once they complete the program.”

Volunteers can access the CommUnity Zone website (www.communityzonelewisburg.org), download a volunteer opportunity form and submit it to peltiercynthia4@gmail.com.

Volunteering can even be done from your own home. Golden Rule Love Inc., in Milton, partners with local churches to respond to a variety of needs, from loneliness to household help. With social distancing causing isolation among some people, the organization has had an increase in people reaching out just for someone to talk to.

“Talk with them. Pray with them,” said Julie Tyson, office administrator. “Social distancing makes them feel isolated. Their need can be filled through phone calls.”

  Other volunteer opportunities include:

- praying for Love Inc.’s ministry

- office volunteers, answering the phones

- transportation to medical appointments or grocery stores

- run errands

- yard work.

For more information, call 570-742-3561 or visit www.goldenruleloveinc.wixsite.com/website.

Cindy O. Herman lives in Snyder County. Email comments to her at CindyOHerman@gmail.com.

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