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“Day of Caring” makes a real difference

Vivien Steele, left, assistant to the chairperson of the English department, and Diane Rankin, coordinator of the physics department, didn't let the rain dampen their enthusiasm as they helped clear trees and plants from the old pottery ruins for the Historic Bethlehem Partnership.

As a member of Lehigh’s purchasing department, Patty Reich knows better than most the value of things. That’s why she signs up to volunteer for United Way’s “Day of Caring” each year.

So, on the rain-soaked sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Reich left a pile of work back on her South Mountain Campus desk to volunteer at the Cedarbrook Nursing Home in Fountain Hill.

“These people are right in our backyard and all they want is a little bit of our time,” Reich said. “It doesn’t cost anything, except a few hours away from work, and the payoff is amazing. To see the smiles on the people’s faces and to know that you made a small difference is an incredible feeling.”

At eight different nonprofit agencies, all within a stone’s throw of the university’s main campus, an army of “Day of Caring” volunteers from Lehigh were making a difference for a 14th straight year.

“The work that these volunteers perform is much appreciated by our residents and certainly by me,” said Alice Christman, the activities supervisor at Cedarbrook Nursing Home. “They do weeks, even months worth of work in a single day.”

The seven other sites where more than 80 Lehigh faculty, staff and students—including the entire Lehigh men’s lacrosse team—volunteered were: New Bethany Ministries on West Fourth Street in Bethlehem; VIA of the Lehigh Valley Inc.’s thrift store in Fountain Hill; the Historic Bethlehem Partnership’s Colonial Industrial Quarter Garden; the South Bethlehem Neighborhood Center; the South Side Boys and Girls Club; the Volunteer Center of the Lehigh Valley; and the Cops-N-Kids Literacy Program.

“The ‘Day of Caring’ represents one example of how giving the people at Lehigh are to our community,” said Dale Kochard, Lehigh’s executive director of community and regional affairs. “The Lehigh community reaches out to our neighbors in need on almost a daily basis through our office of community service, the office of community and regional affairs, the athletics department, and many other individual and organizational efforts across our campus. It is important that the combined human resources of Lehigh support the efforts of our local community heroes in their daily struggle to serve those less fortunate.”

“We should work together”

Reich was one of five Lehigh employees who were each teamed up with a nursing home resident in the Cedarbrook Olympics, a five-event competition that combined equal doses of tossing bean bags, Frisbees and horseshoes with sharing laughs and hugs with senior citizens. The team of Jen Pastor, an accounts coordinator in Lehigh’s office of research and sponsored programs, and Catherine, a spunky senior citizen best known around Cedarbrook Nursing Home for her pinochle prowess, ended up being crowned Olympic champions.

Reich, it turns out, has a special place in her heart for the often-underappreciated work that nursing home employees do—having worked in one while in college and then witnessing the patience and professionalism of the employees up close while they took care of her late father, George, five years ago during the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Pastor, a self-described “Day of Caring rookie” who volunteered at Cedarbrook along with office mate Nicole Corali, said the reaction of the nursing home residents makes it all worthwhile.

“It’s amazing that something so little, like taking a day off from work to sit and talk to a senior citizen, makes them so happy,” she said. “You see their smiles and it makes you feel awesome.”

Downstairs from the Cedarbrook Olympics, five additional “Day of Caring” volunteers—armed with rubber gloves and cleaning products—were cleaning and reorganizing Cedarbrook’s activities office.

“Lehigh has to chip in,” said Marie A. Bartos, an administrative coordinator in Lehigh’s office of technology transfer, who was cleaning and reorganizing the nursing home’s video library alongside Elaine Clymer, an administrative clerk from the admissions office. “We’re all part of the South Side community, so we should work together and help our neighbors whenever we can.”

“Smart, motivated, and willing to lend a helping hand”

Spending time with the volunteers, it quickly becomes clear that the nonprofit agencies aren’t the only ones benefiting from the “Day of Caring” experience. The volunteers learn valuable lessons, too.

Lehigh’s lacrosse team lent a hand to Bethlehem’s Cops-N-Kids Literacy Program, which has distributed 127,000 books in the Lehigh Valley and throughout the world. While waiting for a car to arrive to load up with books, program head Beverly Bradley struck up a conversation with three members of the lacrosse team—James Kadar ’08, Stuart Baxter ’08, and Brendan Feeney ’09. Bradley, a retired Southern Lehigh High School teacher, outlined the uphill battle that children in poverty face.

“Sixty-one percent of households in poverty don’t have a single children’s book in them; the average child in a poverty-stricken home is read to an average of just 25 hours over the course of their childhood,” Bradley told the student-athletes. “By contrast, the average child from a middle-class home is read to by a parent on average between 1,000 and 1,700 hours during their childhoods.”

Feeney, an English and creative writing major, was noticeably touched when he heard the numbers. “Those statistics are mind-boggling, especially for someone like me who grew up in a house filled with books,” he said. “It makes the work we’re doing here today seem even more important. We need to get books into the hands of kids who are less fortunate in order to even the playing field.”

With that, the car pulled up and the troika of lacrosse team players quickly dashed off into the drizzle to load hundreds of books in.

As they went to work, Bradley smiled—having learned a lesson as well.

“Today’s college kids get a bad rap, in my opinion,” she said. “Look at those young men. They’re smart, motivated and willing to lend a helping hand. The future of this country is in great hands with young people like that.”

Bill Doherty

Posted on Wednesday, September 12, 2007

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