There were many nights when Joyce Smarr's personal troubles left hertossing and turning. These days she sleeps like a baby. Her formula is simple.
"When we can do something for people who are less fortunate than we are, we can overcome problems," the 59-year-old EllicottCity resident said.
Smarr was one of 16 people recognized last week as winners of theCentral Maryland Golden Rule Volunteer Awards, sponsored by J. C. Penney Co. to honor volunteer services to communities in the region.
When Smarr learned she would receive a certificate of merit and a $250 contribution for the St. Martin's Home, where she volunteers nearly every day, she thought that perhaps someone was playing a joke on her.
But Mother Regina Vincent Jones, administrator of St. Martin'sHome in Baltimore County, assured her it was no joke. Administratorsthere had kept a record of the 600 hours Smarr logged last year.
"Joyce is a very dedicated person who never looks for recognition; that's why we nominated her," Jones said.
Smarr's volunteer work began in earnest 13 years ago in the aftermath of her divorce. Living inher empty nest in Richmond, Va., unemployed and with her two children grown, she was trying to fill her hours with shopping and Masses.
"I had to have an outlet after my divorce; things were pretty hard,and I needed something to do other than cry and clean out closets," she said.
Because Smarr had enjoyed a close relationship with her grandparents and had always gotten along well with older people, she inquired about volunteering at a nursing home in the Richmond area.
She was directed to a home run by the Catholic order of the Little Sisters of the Poor. She was asked to work Sundays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. On her first day, Smarr recalls, she stayed two hours late, and when she got home that evening she slept like a rock.
Her nights have been restful ever since. She continued her work at that nursing home for 10 years. Three years ago, Smarr moved to Maryland because shehad trouble finding a job in the Richmond area. She works as a dispatcher for an appliance firm in Laurel, but her priority continues to be her volunteer work. Before moving to Maryland, she learned about the St. Martin's Home, which is also run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Every weekday at 5 p.m., when many employees hurry home to their family obligations, Smarr scurries to her own responsibilities.
"The home is my family," she said. "When I leave the office, I work off whatever stress I have at the home."
After three years of dressing, bathing and serving the elderly residents their dinner, feeding sick patients and putting them to bed, the residents consider Smarr family, too. After all, she is at the home every weeknight and Sundays from 5:30 to 8 p.m. She also shows the residents videos twice a month and is a dancing partner to some during holiday celebrations. "Anything that they want me to do, I will do," she said.
Occasionally, Smarr also works an eight-hour shift on weekends at St. Martin's as a nurse's aide. Last year, she took advantage of a six-week course offered by the Little Sisters of the Poor to receive a nursing aide certificate.
"I did not want to be paid, but the law requires that I must be whenever I'm working as an aide -- isn't that dumb?" Smarr said.
Some of her friends worry that she spends too much leisure time at the nursing home, and they tease her about being a "volunteer junkie." Smarr disagrees. "I get my apartment clean; my car gets washed," she said. Smarr says she has enough time for other interests: reading, watching television and collecting antiques.
She still takes occasional trips to Virginia to visit two close friends, who are 92and 78.
"I have a lot of older friends; we like to go to Mass andthen have brunch," she said.
On holidays she also visits her daughter, who lives in Kansas City, Mo., and son, who lives in West Virginia. Smarr especially enjoys her three grandchildren, ages 5 to 10, during those visits.
"My volunteer work is second nature to me; I do it because I want to do it," she said. Besides, she added with a hearty laugh, "I can relate to the seniors better than I can to kids."
Underneath her jocularity lie the real reasons for her devotion tothe residents.
"Some of the people (in the nursing home) have no family, some never get to go out. I know one resident who never gets a single visitor," she said. "Sometimes people who live by themselvesnever get a phone call. If I sometimes feel lonely, how must these people feel who live in (nursing) homes?
"It's hard for some families to visit their loved ones when they aren't recognized. I tell them, 'At least your loved one, who may regard you as a visitor, does notfeel alone when you are there.' "
There is satisfaction for Smarrin helping residents day-to-day.
"Here, for example, is this woman who had done everything herself and now she has to depend on me to do everything for her. My work is very rewarding."
She admits that, like everyone else, the residents are not always easy to work with."They have their days, like everyone else."
One time Smarr boughta sweater for a resident, only to have him reject it and ask her to bring him tangerines and honey instead. She answered his request cheerfully and gave the sweater to another resident.
"I have to do what I have to do; I don't know how to do it any other way," Smarr said.That way is best illustrated in how Smarr describes a routine duty.
"I wash them, put them to bed and kiss them," she said. "It's likekissing your kids good night."