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  • Friday, December 31, 2010

    Christmas Day at St. E's

    Longer-term readers of this blog know that I try to do some kind of charitable event every year around my birthday to celebrate another year of good health, prosperity, etc. This past year, I participated in the Avon Walk for the Cure, which is a full marathon walk the first day and a half marathon walk the second day. I had to raise a chunk of change to participate and then walk whatever part I could walk. I didn't blog about it because I wasn't blogging at the time, but I'll look for the blurb I wrote and post it, if I can find it. For the record, I did finish 33.3 miles -- the full marathon on the first day and 7.1 miles on the second day before I surrendered to my blisters.

    Anyway, I have also always thought I'd like to be one of those really generous, giving types who volunteers during the holidays. I'm actually pretty self-centered, but with a baby coming and whatnot, I'm trying to get past my essential me-ness. Well, I heard about an opportunity to spend some time with some patients at St. Elizabeth's Hospital on Christmas Day and decided to do it. I even roped in SM and my mom, too.

    Basically, the idea was to spend time with patients on Christmas. That's it.

    And St. E's, for those of you haven't heard of it, is a pretty famous psychiatric hospital.

    I had no idea what to expect, but we signed up for the afternoon shift.

    We were three of approximately two dozen volunteers. This was the first year they had volunteers in over the holidays, so the plan was pretty basic -- play games, do crafts and just hang out with the patients. The organizer told us that the patients' lives consisted of having things done *for* them and *to* them and that having people do things *with* them would help ease the institutional feel of spending Christmas institutionalized.

    We met some interesting folks. Some were less than interactive; some were very articulate and well-spoken. I met one guy named David who had been at the hospital for 35 years. He was a writer who grew up in DC. Liked playing ball and still had family in the area. We had a pretty good conversation. He was very articulate and, except for the setting, there was nothing immediately apparent about him that suggested that he needed to be institutionalized. He was the one who told me that most of the patients in the activity area were made to come down and participate and that I shouldn't take it personally if folks had no interest in me or the craft project I was doing. Meeting David surprised me because he didn't match all my preconceived notions of what I thought a "psychiatric patient" would be like. Whatever I thought it was, it didn't include someone like David. Of course, I don't know why he was institutionalized, but he taught me that as open-minded as I would like to think I am, I'm not. And I need to get over myself and do more things that I've never done to get more experiences with different kinds of people.

    I also talked -- or tried to talk -- to a number of other patients. Then dinner was served. The volunteers helped with the food and the clean-up, and then we left. We were there about 3.5 hours.

    I don't know if I'll go back again next year -- not because I had a bad experience -- but because I don't know that my being there was worthwhile. Which begs the question of "worthwhile for whom"? For me? Well, then, it's still all about me, isn't it? And isn't the point of volunteering to get outside yourself a little bit and do something for someone else? So if the measure is "worthwhile for me", then I need to put on my big girl panties and shut up. So, was it worthwhile for them? I dunno, but I also can't be the judge of that, can I? (See above comment about big girl panties.)

    So, we'll see. Of course, next year -- knock on wood -- I'll have a baby, so things will be different. Maybe just SM and I will volunteer and mom will stay at home with the kidlet. But I do want to do some kind of volunteer activity again next year. And maybe it will be at St. E's, if the coordinators thought things went well and want us back.

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