Helping Because It Feels Right

April 29, 1997|By Sandra Crockett and Rob Hiaasen | Sandra Crockett and Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

In Philadelphia this week, presidents and generals and corporate sponsors have drawn the nation's attention to the issue of community volunteering and involvement.

But every day in cities across the country, volunteers go about their business without hoopla, far from the spotlight. In Baltimore yesterday, a few stopped to talk about what they do, and why.

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Nothing stops Victoria Smith from volunteering. The Baltimore native finished school, began a career as a registered nurse, and yet she volunteered. She got married, continued working, and continued volunteering. She raised two children and, yes, kept on volunteering.

Smith's beloved husband died. She passed her 50th birthday. She joined the Peace Corps. Now, she's 66 and back in Baltimore. And working as a volunteer.

"I've been volunteering for years and years," says Smith, who now volunteers at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she reads to children. "I cannot remember all of the places I have volunteered. I did it when I was working at the same time."

Yet this petite woman with the trim, gray bun will look you in the eyes and insist she isn't a good example of a volunteer.

"Well, I don't think I'm a good example because of the reason why I volunteer," she says as she sits, surrounded by books, in the small, colorful hospital library. "You see, I like doing what I like to do. When I work for a salary, I do what I have to do and enjoy that as well. But this is different."

Most of her volunteer work has been in the health care field. But she recalls at least one notable exception. Smith once lived in Detroit and was fascinated by the huge General Motors building.

"I always wanted to get inside that building, so I volunteered," she says. Smith offered her services as a nurse and took blood pressure screenings.

Her reputation as a volunteer was such that sometimes others volunteered her services for her.

"I remember my son was in the fourth grade and his teacher asked whose parent could volunteer in the library. Well, my son raised his hand and volunteered me! I was working as a night nurse then but I didn't have the heart to tell him no," she says. "So, I would come home, take a shower, get everybody off and go volunteer."

Then there is her Peace Corps stint.

Smith had long dreamed of joining the Corps, but couldn't while she was married and raising a family. "After the death of my husband, I decided I should go," she says. So in 1989, with her children grown, off she went, first to Costa Rica, then Africa. She returned to Baltimore in 1996 and decided to donate time at the hospital, working with children.

Each Monday, she can be found at the round, orange table and tiny blue chairs where she reads to her young charges in the library.

She can not imagine changing her ways now. "I've been volunteering most of my life," she says.

For information about volunteering at Hopkins Hospital, call 410-955-5924.

Richey Hospice

It's Kate. KATE. That's OK, "I forget my name all the time," volunteer Kate Berry says to a dying woman named Addie.

Addie lives at the Joseph Richey Hospice in Baltimore, where 56-year-old Kate Berry of Catonsville has spent nine years ducking quietly into these homespun rooms. Why hospice work? Why befriend people who will probably be dead in three months?

In her case, Berry had watched her mother die in a hospice in Washington state. "I was so impressed with the love they seem to have for people the way they comforted her."

So, the last nine years have been pay-back time, Berry says. In the beginning, the Baltimore hospice, opened by Mount Calvary Church in 1987, asked Berry and the other general care volunteers to wear pink coats. Berry fought any dress code. These people have seen enough walking suits and coats. "I just wanted to come as a friend," she says.

And she comes every Monday -- not to perform miracles, only gestures. At this stage of life (the last stage), simple gestures are about all a body can volunteer. Berry is no singer, but she'll sing on cue. She's no champion gardener, but she brings fresh flowers into these 13 rooms.

Berry will also bring her mutt Toby to work -- if he's not having a bad-breath day. Sometimes even if he is. Because these people, her fleeting friends, have no spare time.

Outside Addie's room, a needle-point verse reads "Slow Me Down Lord. Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind " Inside her room, Addie moans beneath a bulletin board featuring a Mickey Mouse sketch by her grandson. "Stay Strong!" the card says. A nurse asks Addie if she needs oxygen.

"Addie loves needle-point," Berry says, rubbing Addie's wrapped left arm. A needle-point pillow in blue and white is propped on the dresser by a Holy Bible. A slight breeze shovels the blue, flowery curtains. Addie had requested the curtains for privacy. "Need some oxygen?" a nurse asks again. Addie accepts.

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