The heat of the day lingered as the sun began to set. My wife and I gathered up 20 of the 110 bags of popcorn we had just finished popping along with a small cooler packed with various fruit juices. We walked the short expanse from the dining hall to the Infant House.

It was movie night, and 15 excited children, ages six years and younger, had gathered in their living room to watch Ice Age in Spanish.  As the movie began, little Daniela, a 3-year old Latino girl, climbed onto my lap.  For the duration of the movie, she laid against my chest.  She would reach up and rub my chin, look up with her beautiful, dark eyes and smile, then turn back to watch the movie while rubbing the back of my hands which held her.  My many cuts, bruises, smashed fingers, and sore muscles from the week’s construction projects became badges of honor because of the loving touches of this little girl named Daniela.  The amazing thing was, this experience was six years in the making and nearly did not happen.

I had been pressured into participating in this weeklong mission trip to a Mexican orphanage. I had resisted the pressure for the previous five years.  My work at a major Fortune 500 company was extremely demanding, my skill set did not fit the requirements of the scheduled mission activities and I didn’t speak Spanish.  When a lack of volunteers threatened to cancel the time at the orphanage altogether–an orphanage whose kids had counted on the group’s arrival and service for the last 10 years–I caved and signed up because my excuses just weren’t good enough.

The first morning in Mexico, I awoke very early and slipped out of my dorm room to the dining hall.  As I entered, I smelled the aroma of hot coffee coming from the kitchen.  Through a screen door, I could see an 80-cup coffee maker with the ready light illuminated.  I turned the doorknob—locked.  I looked for another entrance, but there was none, so I walked over and sat alone at one of the many tables. Dread and self-doubt ruled my thoughts.  Shortly, an older gentleman entered and unlocked the screen door. I started to rise, but he motioned for me to remain seated as he entered the kitchen. Soon, he returned with two cups of hot coffee, handed me one as he introduced himself as “Ed the Cook”, and pulled up a chair. He thanked me for coming and asked if it was my first time at the orphanage. With my less-than-enthusiastic ‘yes’ answer, Ed smiled and challenged me to put my heart into the week.  He said he sold his stateside diamond business and came to live at the orphanage because he wanted to ‘work where Christ was working’—and Christ was surely working in this place. I told Ed if he would keep the coffee hot, I would accept his challenge. He did and I did.

Our team of 19 adults worked through the day renovating an old structure into a three-bedroom apartment for a new mission family. In the evenings, we played with the 72 kids. I soon realized enthusiasm and commitment trumped both lack of skill and language barriers.  I began to enjoy the experience immensely.  Then little Daniela showed me why I needed a plan to make volunteerism a routine part of my life.

I learned volunteerism was the simple act of providing a care service without expecting anything in return. If your world was like my world, it was complex and seemed to run at hyper speed.  The demands of work and rearing children left little time to volunteer. Returning from Mexico, I realized I needed to look at my surroundings and watch for opportunities to offer a helping hand. ‘Heroic‘ volunteerism, such as international mission trips, is wonderful, but so is helping an elderly neighbor roll her trashcan to the curb on trash day. Listening to a grieving mother who just lost her son or serving a meal at a homeless shelter can change lives.  Opportunities abound…all we have to do is say yes.  And I started saying yes.

As I approached retirement, I had the normal misgivings of how I would spend my days.  But because of my renewed interest in volunteering, I was confident I would find a way to stay engaged. The day I retired, I visited a coworker in his office. I told him it was my last day of work and I would miss our association.  He smiled, draped his arm around my shoulders and said:

“No, this is your last day of working for monetary gain–your work to fatten your bank account and feed your retirement fund.  Now, you will get to do God’s work: the really fun work that feeds your spirit.  The work that puts smiles on strangers’ faces and deposits joy into your heart.  Your real work is just beginning, and it will be an exciting time.”

How true his words have become. No amount of money can feed the soul like an outstretched helping hand.  The volunteer world has opened new doors to fulfillment and supplied new friends at every turn. One sterling example is my experience at a local hospital:

I stopped my six-passenger golf cart behind an aging Ford sedan with a license plate displaying a Purple Heart military award and a Disabled Vet symbol.  The car door opened and a walking cane appeared.  Very deliberately, an elderly man emerged from the driver’s seat.

“It takes me awhile, but I’ll make it,” he said with a smile.

“No hurry…take your time, and be careful,” I replied as I watched him place his WWII Veteran cap on his balding head.

He walked slowly to my cart and asked if he could sit next to me. I smiled and nodded yes as I read IWO JIMA stenciled next to PEARL HARBOR on his hatband.  I was humbled and honored to have this man at my side.

“God bless you for being here to help an old man like me.  Not sure I could have made the long walk to the hospital on this cold day.  How often do you work here?” he asked.

“I volunteer at least once a week for an entire day.”

“You are a volunteer?  They don’t pay you for this? Bless you even more!”

“Oh, my pay is the greatest.  I get to meet heroes like you.  And, I get more God-bless-yous and Great-to-see-yous during my shift here than I will get the rest of the week.”

The aging Vet smiled, and we had a lively discussion of his military service as I delivered him to the VA Hospital door.  He thanked me again and said he hoped I was available to take him back to his car.

The loving touch of a small child with an uncertain future; the smile and reminiscing of a hero nearing the end of his earthly life.  Simple actions that fed my spirit and had life-changing effects on my soul.  All I had to do was anticipate an opportunity to serve and then merely say yes.

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