Thousands of Villagers volunteer in a big way

Dana McCarthy, second from right, of the Village of Belvedere, leads volunteers in prayer before serving Thanksgiving Day meals in November 2018 at the Wildwood Soup Kitchen. This year, through June, the soup kitchen had about 280 active volunteers.

Kerry Hughes likes to call himself a heavy lifter. He can be found two days a week moving 200 to 300 boxes of canned goods and other food at the Wildwood Food Pantry. The 7-foot former chemical engineer has found his true calling there after retiring in The Villages. “I love it,” Hughes said. “I’m called to serve.”  That spirit prevails in almost every corner in The Villages as thousands of individuals volunteer with hundreds of organizations. Villagers serve in faith-based, health-based, veterans’ and children’s groups, as well as The Villages Recreation and Parks Department, to name a few.  In 2018, about 3.8 million Floridians contributed 340.7 million hours of service, according to the Corporation for National Community Service.

“Volunteers see service as an opportunity to transform our communities, which ultimately makes our state a better place to live for all,” said Savannah Kelly, legislative affairs director for Volunteer Florida.

It’s not uncommon in places like The Villages, which foster community engagement, to have a large number of volunteers who give a significant amount of their time, said Dawn Carr, associate professor of the Department of Sociology at Florida State University.

“In a community like The Villages, residents are in a position where they’re no longer working; they’re healthy and looking for opportunities to have meaning and purpose in life,” Carr said.

Seniors typically are in the position in their lives to volunteer more, said David Berlan, assistant professor of public administration at FSU. When people are younger and are working and raising their families, they may not be able to volunteer as much as they want to.

“As people have wrapped up their careers, they have so much experience to draw from and the time to give back,” he said.

In the first half of 2019, a sampling of 12 organizations from the local area reported at least 6,502 Villages volunteers had contributed about 226,538 hours. Independent Sector, a national membership organization for the charitable community, values volunteer work at $24.04 per hour in Florida.

Using that amount, those Villagers’ efforts have been worth about $5.45 million to their community.

Food Pantries

For the past three years, Hughes, of the Village of Lake Deaton, has served at the pantry every week. He also delivers meals one day a week to the homebound for the Wildwood Soup Kitchen’s home ministry program.

But he doesn’t mind the hard work. In fact, he said he finds his time volunteering much more fulfilling than his former career.

“I don’t have a job now, and what really gets me up in the morning is that I get to go out and help others,” he said.

By mid-year, Hughes had logged about 180 hours between the organizations.

The Wildwood Food Pantry and Wildwood Soup Kitchen are just two of the pantries that serve the area and just two places where Villages volunteers put in time.

By the end of June 2019:

Wildwood Food Pantry had about 150 volunteers, but the numbers rise to 170 when the snowbirds are in town, said Don Huggins, manager of the pantry. Volunteers contributed 5,400 hours.

Wildwood Soup Kitchen had 280 active volunteers who gave about 14,000 hours, said Barbara McManus, volunteer coordinator for the soup kitchen.

Christian Food Pantry in Lady Lake had about 123 volunteers who completed roughly 6,300 hours, said Carrol Neal, director of the pantry.

Beyond the Walls Food Pantry in Fruitland Park had three volunteers who gave about 270 hours, said Colleen Brooks, director of the pantry.

Our Mother of Mercy Food Pantry had about 200 volunteers who gave about 5,700 hours, said Thom Horning, a coordinator of the pantry.

The Villages Recreation and Parks Department

About 3,556 volunteers help out at The Villages Recreation and Parks Department, said John Rohan, the department’s director.

They have served as volunteers for Camp Villages, Senior Games and as resident lifestyle leaders, giving about 99,568 hours by the end of June.

“Volunteers help us to be able to provide the many opportunities for Villages residents with their variety of talent and commitment to The Villages with their time,” Rohan said.

RaeAnn Bethel is one of those volunteers. Not only has Bethel served as one of many lifestyle resident group leaders as president of The Girl Scout Alumnae Silver Trefoil Group of The Villages, she also has volunteered for several years with Camp Villages summer programs for children.

Volunteering has always been part of the Village of Bonita resident’s life, and she said she’s not counting her time given.

“It’s become a passion of mine to serve,” she said.

For about eight years, Bethel has helped with arts and crafts events such as kite-making and cupcake decorating with Camp Villages.

And the Silver Trefoil’s 11th annual Pajama and Book drive started Oct. 1 with donation boxes in every recreation center. Last year, the group collected 7,220 pairs of pajamas and 4,200 books for kids.

Bethel makes it her mission to let the community know about the drive wherever she goes.

“If I see a full parking lot at the centers, I pop my head in and I ask (groups) if I could speak,” she said. “It’s my M.O.”

Veterans Groups

The Villages has a big heart for veterans, and is home to more than 19,000 people who have served the country.

Two of the larger groups supporting veterans are Villages Honor Flight and Operation Shoebox The Villages.

Villages Honor Flight volunteer Liza Walters fills multiple roles, including flight director. She helps coordinate volunteer guardians who pair up with veterans on a 24-hour whirlwind trip from The Villages to Washington, D.C., to visit the national memorials. The Village of Duval resident also has directed the “flightless flights,” which simulate a Washington trip for veterans who are unable to go.

But many of her duties are behind the scenes, working with about 100 other volunteers to get a mission going.

As a member of the group since 2012, Walters can’t even count the number of hours she has given. But she figures she logs 1,000 or more a year. Already by June, she’s served about 600 hours.

To Walters, it’s all about the expression on the veterans’ faces.

“They just can’t believe all the crowds that come to see them at 1 a.m. (when they return home),” she said.

Other volunteers, such as Pearl Plasterer, support the troops by working for Operation Shoebox.

Plasterer, of the Village of Polo Ridge, serves as captain of the packing table and works with hundreds of volunteers who pack goodie bags to ship to troops worldwide.

The bags are filled with items, such as candy, cookies, handwritten letters and comics.

She has volunteered with the group for 15 years, and can’t imagine spending her Mondays any other way.

“I’ve done everything there, from stuffing candy and ramen noodles to writing letters to our troops and sewing bags,” she said.

Plasterer is one of the most dedicated workers in the group, said Camille Gieck, director of Operation Shoebox.

“Without people like Pearl, we couldn’t do what we do,” she said. “She goes above and beyond her job.”

Operation Shoebox averages about 300 to 450 volunteers in the high season when the snowbirds are here, Gieck said. Plasterer and about 50 other team leaders usually work for about five hours, while most volunteers work for about two hours.

Plasterer said the troops are definitely worth all the effort. She treasures seeing servicemen come back to thank the group for their letters and packages.

Health-based Groups

Janice Kudrick remembers asking a former patient at Cornerstone Hospice The Villages Hospice House if he wanted a piece of pineapple upside-down cake.

He said the cake was his favorite, and he was so happy he started to cry.

“It’s moments like that that make (the work) so rewarding,” she said.

Kudrick has volunteered for six years as a cook with Cornerstone Hospice & Palliative Care, and rarely misses her four-hour weekend morning shifts.

When she was told she had given 300 hours by June this year, she couldn’t believe it.

“Really, it doesn’t seem like it,” she said. “Time flies.”

While the Village Rio Ranchero resident spends her time mostly in the kitchen, she makes sure to connect with patients and their families whenever she can.

She likes to bake and decorate special cookies and put them in the coffee area for family and staff.

“In a way, food connects people,” Kudrick said.

Currently, about 200 Villagers are volunteers there and had given about 4,100 hours of their time as of June 2019, said Heidi Gaumet, volunteer specialist with Cornerstone’s Villages and Lane Purcell hospice houses.

The sense of fulfillment for volunteers comes from a focus on the patient and family members and making this time in their lives a bit easier and less stressful, she said.

Jeannie Rogale finds her reward in serving at The Villages Regional Hospital Auxiliary Foundation.

In May, the Village Mira Mesa resident was recognized for completing 10,000 hours of service along with two other volunteers.

Rogale, who has been with the auxiliary for 15 years, has worked in several areas of the hospital, including admitting, infusion and the foundation office.

The years have gone by quickly.

“I can’t believe it,” she said.

She volunteers because she wants to reach out to people.

“I’m a good listener, and I like to smile at people,” she said. “A smile goes a long way.”

About 665 Villagers out of 950 volunteers serve at the hospital, and as of June, had given about 55,000 hours, said Lou Emmert, volunteer coordinator of the auxiliary foundation.

Children’s Programs

Rhonda Casey, of the Village of Mallory Square, enjoys working with students by volunteering at schools through Tutors for Kids.

She’s in her sixth year volunteering at Wildwood Elementary School and typically gives five to six hours a week. She puts in about 180 hours for the school term.

The former clinical social worker finds her time spent with the children satisfying.

“After retiring, I wanted to give back to the community, and naturally, I was drawn to education,” Casey said.

At Wildwood, tutors become part of the school family, she said.

“I see (the children) as sponges, open to the learning process,” she said.

She serves with about 375 Villagers who work with Tutors for Kids in several area schools, including Wildwood Elementary and Wildwood Middle High School, said Carolyn Ruhe, one of the founders of the program.

“Rhonda really cares about the children and their families,” Ruhe said.

John Jamison also mentors in after-school programs as a member of SoZo Kids Club of The Villages. SoZo Kids is a ministry of The Help Agency Inc., which works with children who live in poverty in the Ocala National Forest.

The group’s purpose is to provide support through volunteers and fundraisers for The Help Agency, said LaRae Donnellan, club president.

Jamison has developed relationships with several children over the two years he has volunteered.

“I try to work with these kids because maybe I can provide some communication and help guide them,” he said.

In July, the Village of Dunedin resident grilled 100 hamburgers when he visited Camp SoZo’s summer program. While there, he connected with 15-year-old Taylor Almas, whom he got to know through the after-school mentoring program. Taylor, who lives in the forest with his family, has attended summer camp and the after-school programs for seven years.

But this year, Taylor was a camp intern. At the time, he told the Daily Sun that it was about the kids.

It’s a common refrain among Villages volunteers. It’s about the kids, the students, about the veterans, the patients, the hungry.

All $5.45 million of it.

Laura Sikes is a staff writer with The Villages Daily Sun. She can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5307, or laura.sikes@thevillagesmedia.com.