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Dr. Ahr: Reflections on Volunteers and Volunteering

Published Wednesday, May 9, 2012 5:00 pm

The Giving is the Gift:
Reflections on Volunteers and Volunteering

Remarks at Carnival Cruise Lines'
17th Annual F.U.N. Team Recognition Reception

by Dr. Paul R. Ahr, President & CEO, Camillus House

Thank you for inviting me to be with you today. There was a time when I came to this building so often I almost felt that I worked here. Those were the days when the Chairman of the Camillus House Board of Directors, Bob Dickinson, was Carnival Cruise Lines CEO. It is so very nice to be invited back.

Let me begin by thanking you and your co-workers for the hundreds of volunteer hours you have donated to work with and for the persons who are served by Camillus House. And let me thank Carnival Cruise Lines and the Carnival Foundation for their combined cash and in-kind gifts totaling over $3,670,000 since 1994.

Those of you who have volunteered at our main shelter site across from the American Airlines Arena may have noticed a small bronze plaque next to the N.E. 8th Street entrance. Next month that plaque will be transferred to the new Camillus House campus on NW 7th Avenue. It reads:

Camillus House
Founded August 20, 1960 by Brother Mathias Barrett, BGS
A ministry of the Brothers of the Good Shepherd
  *   *   *   *   *
Abandon fear all who enter here; we offer you hope.
Abandon shame all who enter here; we offer you dignity.
Abandon hurt all who enter here; we offer you healing.
Abandon isolation all who enter here; we offer you community.
Embrace hope, embrace dignity, embrace healing,
for you are in the embrace of your community.

Every day at Camillus we encounter persons whose opportunities for self-determination are limited by the constraints of their medicalconditions, their mental illnesses and addictions, their illiteracy and inadequate education, and their unemployability and poverty. With the help of our volunteers like yourselves and our benefactors like your corporations, we strive to help these persons, who come to us as our guests, to overcome their limitations while our clients, and become our peers as productive citizens.

We offer hope through our gift of kindness. We offer dignity through our gift of respect. We offer healing through our gift of compassion. And we offer community through our gift of acceptance. Because of your kindness, respect, compassion and acceptance toward our guests and clients, you have become a part of our Camillus community and ministry.

Let me reflect briefly on one of these virtues — kindness — in terms of the Camillus experience.

For as long as I can remember I have had a small, somewhat faded, wooden plaque near the door to my office, positioned in a place where it is the last thing I see before I leave. It bears this quote variously attributed to William Penn (1644–1718) and the French Quaker missionary to North America, Stephen Grellet (1773–1855):

I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.

The modern English words kind and kindness derive from the same root as the word kin, which refers to persons of a common ancestry, that is, relatives. In a very real sense, if I were to say that you treated me with kindness, I would be saying that you were treating me as if I were a favored relative, that I was your kinsman.

In the Buddhist tradition, the ancient Pāli word metta, which translates as loving kindness, captures a similar meaning. It refers to the willingness to set aside self-interest in the promotion of the well-being of another, as a mother selflessly protects and promotes the welfare of her child. Kindness, then, signals that I will promote your well-being even if it means setting aside my self-interests. It is in this sense that we can say that the opposite of kindness is not cruelty, nor even unkindness. The opposite of kindness is indifference.

Let me share a simple example of kindness that involved me. Quite a few years ago my wife and I traveled to the ruins at Machu Picchu in Peru. There we climbed Huayna Picchu, the dome shaped mountain that dominates tourist photos that advertise the site. At 1.7 miles high, Huayna Picchu is 1,180 feet higher than the Machu Picchu plateau. Those who have climbed Huanya Picchu know that the trail descends several hundred feet from the plateau before it heads to the top.

Due to a series of rookie miscalculations and mistakes, Pat and I ran out of water on the way down, and the climb back up to the Machu Picchu plateau from the ravine was too much for me. With about 20 minutes more to climb, I laid down and she went on to the plateau to get some water for herself and to bring back to me. Since it was late in the day, for the next 30 minutes no one passed me in either direction. Finally a young woman approached from the ravine, dirty, sweaty, and dragging herself up to the plateau. She stopped and handed me her canteen which held about one mouthful of water. “There isn’t much left,” she croaked out of her own parched throat, “but you can have it all.” I’ll bet that kind woman knew of the Penn/Grellet quote about passing that way but once. When Pat returned with water I asked if she had seen a solitary woman hiker and she said that she had glimpsed her on the plateau.

I learned lots of lessons that day, the most important of which are these:

1. It doesn’t matter if your glass is only half full, if you are willing to share it with a thirsty person.

2. Being good is good; doing good is better; being good by doing good is best.

Our clients have told us that life on the street is fraught with fearful possibilities that keep them vigilant 24 hours per day. Fear of being made sick or worse from scavenged food, fear of harm, of arrest, of losing all of one’s earthly possessions are real and terrifying when confronted alone. For some persons who live on the street, there is a fear of no longer being able to be afraid; a fear of giving up and giving in to an all-consuming fear: hopelessness. This is a condition our Institute of Social and Personal Adjustment Director Kathy Garcia calls an inner death experienced by many persons who are street homeless. For Kathy, this inner death is a feeling of spiritual depletion or hopelessness that leads its victims to give up on trying and living.

Regardless of the cause of their homelessness and its accompanying isolation, our clients describe an inevitable and enveloping sense of loneliness. William says that he becomes lonely for affection and family…and attention: “You want to be able to love somebody. When you find somebody to take time out and listen, that brings you up.” Our guests and clients describe an eagerness to engage the people they encounter on the street. “You try to find a way to relate, to communicate, says Angel. “They think you want something from them. Sometimes all you want is some human contact.” Our clients all agree. In an environment where we hear about persons being one paycheck away from homelessness, for many persons already homeless, they are one friend away from loneliness.

For that person who is homeless, the experience of receiving kindness — that is, being treated like a favored relative, realizing that another person is willing to set aside his or her own interests in order to promote your well-being — empowers the recipient to master his or her fear through an infusion of optimism, the feeling that I can and will make it.

But hope is not the antidote to fear; kindness is the antidote to fear. Hope is the result of one’s mastery over fear, and human kindness makes that mastery possible. Your kindness makes that mastery over fear possible at Camillus House. Your kindness creates hope.

Like a mouthful of tepid water to a thirsty wayfarer, not as much as the giver might have liked to share, but more than enough to the recipient, your voluntary offerings of time and friendship make you a gift to Camillus. And I thank you for them as profoundly as I have often and silently thanked my anonymous Andean Aquarius, the water-sharer of Machu Picchu.

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Serving the South Florida community since 1960, Camillus House is a non-profit organization that provides humanitarian services to men, women and children who are poor and homeless.