The power of volunteering
Published April 20, 2017
I started visiting Ruby Gilbert after I interviewed her for an article about residents at Hyland Crest and Highland Wood long-term care homes. The series, called The Road to Highland Wood, was about life stories. Some interview subjects gave short summaries of their lives, either uncomfortable or unable to tell more to an unfamiliar visitor with a notepad and camera. Ruby, on the other hand, had plenty to tell.
She recalled watching a forest fire rage south of her Lochlin farm, filling the sky with orange light. She remembered doctors being sent for in the depth of winter, having to push their way through snowdrifts on horse and cutter. And there were the stories of her award-winning pickles and jams, cakes and salads.
Ruby knew how to cook. In fact, she had been a cook professionally at a resort off County Road 21 near Haliburton. She could whip up a feast for crowds of visitors and relished the opportunity. After she got married, Ruby stopped working at resorts, but she kept cooking. Some of her favourite memories were of friends, neighbours and her beloved husband Mervin enjoying the meals she prepared.
Ruby had so many stories that I couldn’t get them all down for my newspaper article. So, I started visiting her as a volunteer. It was a bit of a hassle at first – you need a police check and a couple of shots at the hospital (not my favourite thing) – but after that, I was able to pop in to see her every week.
I heard all kinds of anecdotes. At 92, Ruby had experienced plenty of loss and she was forthright about how devastating death had been for her. She was also lifted up by tales from her son and grandchildren, discussing her friends who came to visit and strategizing about how she would cook up a banquet for her fellow residents at Highland Wood. (A cook through and through, conversation almost always came back to her desire for a creamy broccoli salad or a juicy steak.)
Last month, Ruby died. Her absence continues to echo through my life as I go about my routine. I remember her description of South Lake Road, icy and rutted as she made her way through a surprise snowstorm to work at Hyland Crest. I imagine her going out for lunch at Village Chalet after grocery shopping, like she told me about; her husband ordering a toasted western sandwich, even though she scoffed that she could make that at home.
All of these stories, the funny and the sad, made up a relationship that I will always cherish. And it came from volunteering my time.
This coming week celebrates the work of volunteers, but I think it should also be a week to consider giving your time to a cause in the community. Many organizations are always looking for someone to give some time doing bookkeeping, running errands, driving a truck, doing web design or visiting a senior.
Volunteering to visit Ruby absolutely benefitted her, but like most volunteering experiences, it also greatly benefitted me. It was a defining experience; a special time that I will always be thankful I had.