Why I Volunteer – and HOW I Do It

all of us together

For mother of three Terry Marotta, connecting her volunteering to her early career as an inner-city teacher was essential. Finding organizations whose missions matched her youthful goals felt instinctively right, something she recommends. Marotta works for two nonprofits devoted to diversity: A Better Chance, which identifies talented young people of color for study at top middle and secondary schools; and her town’s Multicultural Network, helping people build inclusive communities.

“As a high school English teacher in my twenties, I had had the chance to live out and uphold similar values to the ones these two boards cherish. In Room 334, we all listened with respect to one another, we learned to celebrate our differences, and before long got to [a point] where we were all really glad we had come to class each day.”

Marotta knew the nonprofits were a fit when she felt the same way she did as a young, ambitious teacher. Her feeling of purpose has been key to her success as a volunteer.

Many people are passionate about causes but unsure if they have the right skills. “Banish all such thinking!” Marotta urges. “Try to see if you can identify a couple of people—even just through social media—who work with the nonprofit. Ask what the joys and obligations are.”

Then, she says, observe how the group acts. Perhaps you can sit in on a meeting. Get a sense of the organization’s tenor. Just visiting the group’s Facebook page may help you see how members interact.

Most of all, Marotta says, consider your legacy when joining a group.

“How do I know that ‘my’ work will live on? It sounds corny but I think I know it because of something that Mother Teresa said: ‘All that is not given away is lost.’ So give it away, your time and your love and your attention, and you will never be sorry, because the people you have given these things to will in time give away their own store of them,” she advises.

Of course, volunteering can be taxing, especially with family pressures. Marotta worked  with  the Winchester (MA) Chapter of  A Better Chance for ten years when she was young, then took two decades off before returning. When she did, Marotta says, “I was a different person with a new ability to laugh, to survive setbacks, to keep things in perspective.” Now, she says, “I have much better boundaries. I know how to practice self-care. What I give, I give with a full heart.” Make sure you have the time and the energy to devote yourself to your chosen cause, so when you give, it’s without resentment or pressure. When this is the case, the gratitude—for both the volunteer and the recipient—is immeasurable.

“I’ve seen this again and again,” says Marotta. “There is almost no greater force for good than the power of careful attention to another person.”

So thanks Kara. Thanks for helping me say what I deeply believe. And thanks to my fellow board members on the Network for helping me stay mindful of the many good reasons I do any kind of volunteer work. I’m a lucky girl.



How I Spent My Week Off

IMG_3408How I spent my week off: Not the way this picture would suggest. This was our vacation week; the only week old David and I take all year, just for ourselves, up at our place by the lake.

My friend Bobbie, in a laconic email containing only one link, pointed me to an article in The Times about how you really mustn’t let your work life encroach on your vacation. It says you just can’t keep answering emails and making calls, much less initiating them, but… well, you know how it is: you’re never on vacation really after about age 30, and certainly not if you’re someone who writes for a living.

And then in my case there’s the non-profit I spend so much of my time with the local chapter of an organization called A Better Chance that places outstanding students of color from all around the country in secondary schools that are regarded as the among the most challenging, the high school in our town being one such. We call it ABC for short and somehow I can never NOT work on ABC stuff, especially now with two shiny new ABC scholars due to arrive in a little over a week.  

Lots of us volunteers have been busy lately, fixing up the house where our eight guys live together with two amazing resident directors and a crack resident academic coordinator. I myself have been buying new file cabinets and furnishing the newly painted study room with cozy window treatments and fresh artwork.

the back study room

I’ll admit I’m mad for window treatments lately and earlier this month even tried hanging swags from old Dave’s broad shoulders, like Carol Brunette did in her spoof of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind when Scarlett uses those velvety drapes from the lost glory that was Tara to make herself a ball gown. 

carol as scarlett

It’s like a nesting mania with me lately. You’d think I 22  and eight months pregnant.

Anyway the the upperclassmen will be coming back any day now, one for Cross Country, one to row Crew and one just to help get the younger guys assimilated to life in New England. And there’s yet more to do: We’re spiffing up the grounds and painting the fence, getting a plumber in to replace one of the shower doors., and day and night I’m writing to all the new volunteers in an attempt to infect them with the enthusiasm I feel for this organization that helps so many young men grow into their gifts.

Here’s one of them now, Machias Turner, who left here in June at 6’5” but looks to be returning to us closer to 6’7”. The picture was taken on the ABC College Tour outside of one of the buildings on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill.

machias fall of senior year

BUT ANYWAY, having said all this about the work i couldn’t help doing, I did relax some. In fact, along about Wednesday that rainy,rainy day I relaxed so much I wasn’t paying attention even to the simple things. I was treating my coffee with liquid sweetener and  added some drops then tasted: added more drops and tasted again. Why isn’t this getting any sweeter? I wondered before looking down at what I held in my hand to see what I was actually using: the bathing solution for my contact lenses. I knew I was in what passes for vacation mode in my world when I was able to just smile. So I put saline solution into my coffee, so what? What’s wrong with a little salt to go with your sweet? I mean, what else made the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup the hit that it is? 🙂

Fun for the Four-Eyed (and more)

Two days ago I picked up a pair of glare-canceling nonprescription glasses (for night driving) and also a pair of prescription glasses, for the dreaded unforeseen circumstances under which my contacts pop clear out of my head.

When you’re at the optician’s, they clamp all these gadgets to your face and then take a picture.

Soooo, documentarian that I am, I took a picture OF that picture.

It’s me all right – same dumb little nose – but my eyes look strangely un-brown. 

at lenscrafters

I knew I had better get some of those glare-killing glasses because I often have precious cargo aboard in my car: seven talented young scholars, entrusted  for four years  to my town’s local chapter of the A Better Chance Program by their awesome families. 

Here they all are last fall, on a fun outing in Boston that Resident Academic Coordinator Penny took them on.



It was also last fall, while bringing them to see an amazing performance of Romeo & Juliet at the Strand Theatre in  Dorchester,  that I glanced down at my navigator for half a second and rolled into the car in front of us.

At 5 mph, but still.

 The woman driving that car yelled “That really hurt!” and grabbed her neck when I jumped out to apologize. She also called the Staties. Those guys arrived, lights flashing, together with three guys in a fire truck, all of whom quickly assessed the situation and declared it a non-event.

The boys, meanwhile, had hopped out of my car right when I did, some of them to comfort me (she was really yelling) and some to take pictures of her completely unblemished rear bumper.

But then, when we all climbed back in to resume out pilgrimage, they were, to a man, quietly texting their mums:

“Terry just rear-ended someone.”

Humbling! AND scary!

Now I take so many precautions behind the wheel it’s a wonder I ever get out of my own driveway, where peace reigns and even the field mouse feel safe.

vacationing in my 021


Waiting CAN be Fun

DSC_0084Waiting can be fun if the company’s good. 

We had set out before 5:00 to get to the campus of Milton Academy to hear a talk by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who in 1971 first came to this elite boarding school from the projects on Chicago’s South Side. He was a scholar with A Better Chance, the unique-in-the-country program that, since its founding, has helped more than 1400 students of color graduate from some 300 of the country’s most rigorous public and private schools and go on to careers in medicine, the law, government, you name it. (Read more about it here.)

When I say ‘we’ I’m referring to the seven scholars in my own town’s ABC program, who live together in a cozy old house to which they came the summer before their 9th grade year.

We had left for the event before 5:00 but now here it was almost 7:00 when ABC Executive Director Sandra Timmons stood to tell the crowd that foul weather had grounded the Governor’s plane in New York.

Well, we could believe that;  even here in New England, dark clouds boiled and spit and winds were gusting up to 40 miles per hour.

She said we shouldn’t worry though because, upon learning that his flight has been scrubbed, the Governor had started to drive, a four-hour journey under the best of circumstances.

After some short remarks about the program, she said, “ Enjoy these wonderful appetizers!” “And… have fun networking!”

“Have FUN?  Networking?” I’ll bet many were thinking. But in the end it was fun, in part because when you’re waiting, you can relax. You’re where you’re supposed to be so for once you can let time spool, and enjoy the exchanges that come your way.

One nice exchange I had occurred when I went to wash up from the buttery heaven of the appetizers and was greeted by a woman just drying her hands.

“Welcome to the Ladies Room!” she cried and before we knew it we were talking passionately about the role of public education. Later, in that basement hallway, a gentleman and I laughed at the sight of a little brown lizard executing his calisthenics as he inched up the wall, blown up north, we joked, on this tide of southerly rain. And shortly after that, I stood at the beverage table where a third person and I noticed a bowl of greenery that appeared to be offering itself to one and all. We were examining it with interest when, in the nick of time, we saw a fork plunged in its pretty midst.

 “This is somebody’s salad!” we both yelled simultaneously, and just barely missed committing the faux pas of trying to make off with that guy’s supper.

A stir arose near the back of the hall and suddenly the Governor was bounding to the front of the hall.

“Can you hear me without this? “ he asked, indicating the microphone.

“Yes!” everyone  called back.

Then he spoke simply, his hands clasped before him, about the lessons he has learned along the way.

He said he now sees that his grandmother was right to say the prestige of having been admitted to Harvard meant less to her than opportunities her grandson would have there. He said you need to really peel back the surface layers of a thing to find its true meaning. Do that, he advised all of us. He said that when a young person asks something of you, you should try to say yes, and then stay faithful to that promise. 

He had stayed faithful, in fighting his way across the miles to see us. 

We had too, in waiting for him. 

And if we had some smiles along the way, why all the better.


(Sometimes it’s good to have your schedule changed or to be blown a bit off course… )

governor patrick & gamaral

      especially when your wait is really worth it  (Gamaral Sawyer with Governor Patrick in his office) 


Off to College

rayvoughn steps 0ct09This boy came to our town as a five-foot tall freshman in high school. He was a scholar in our local chapter of the ABC Program. Such a journey!

Back at the start of his time here I used to bring him over to Harvard for to bone up on his Italian with my nephew Matt. Matt was a freshman there at the time but time passed as time will do.

Matt is now a senior at Harvard – and as of yesterday Rayvoughn was a freshman at the University of New Hampshire where he will study Computer Science.

Even at 14, Ray was good with computers. Shortly after he arrived, he was already the go-to guy at the ABC House for PC issues.

He networked all the computers and set up the wireless printer. And anytime anybody got a new Smart Phone – and we all know the Smart Phones are smarter than we are – Ray had it set and synched it up in a matter of minutes.

I felt lucky. As a volunteer and then the head of the Student Life , I got to see him all the time, starting when he was just over 5 feet tall and stood up at the big Fundraising Dinner and all unbidden said what it meant to him to be part of this wonderful program.

rayvoughn takes the mike.

I remember when he began wrestling and found out he was good at it.

he's all that - Ray wins the gold

That was the same time of year he wrote his History paper on the symbolic import of the Brooklyn Bridge in the years just after the ruinous War Between the States. I still have a video clip I made of him discovering all the material .

But time keeps moving; we all know that. He began working for PC Quick Help and grew almost a foot and graduated from Winchester High School last June, making both his dad and his mom and the host family who sheltered him for four years very proud.

Ray his hosts & his mom 2

both as a 15-year old…


…and as an 18-year-old

And yesterday it was my privilege to bring him to college.

And yesterday it was my privilege to bring him to college. Four trips up those stairs and my car, whcih at 10 am that packed to the gills, by 2:00 was once again empty.


So shine on Rayvoughn Shion Millings! You have a world of support behind you!

The People You Walk With

help with a desk b & wIt was a good first day of the year, yesterday was. I fetched a young ABC scholar just off the bus from the long vacation and brought him and his two ‘brothers’ to Anna’s Taqueria for burritos. Then they helped David carry a desk as the size of an elephant down three flights of stairs in our house. It was bound for our daughter Annie’s place after ‘living’ here for 20-plus years.

I remember carrying this desk UP all those stairs, in 1991, with only one skinny teenager to help me.

“We had to saw off one of its legs,” I told David as we anticipated this job. His take on things? That the skinny teen and I must have approached the task wrong way back in the 90s. So imagine my satisfaction yesterday, when, after turning it every which way, all four of these guys concluded simultaneously that the thing couldn’t POSSIBLY fit out the door of the room it was in… Unless we cut one of its leg off.

Then things got easier, boy. We found the old cut, applied a hacksaw to it, got the leg off and got that desk DOWN the stairs. Well, they did that part while I hustled outside and commanded the five rear seats in my minivan to lie down flat. The next thing you knew that desk was in there.

help with a desk

Getting that major task done AND being thus vindicated felt great – but not as good as what happened to me as with these three guys I sat over my burrito at Anna’s:

A woman stopped at our table on her way toward the door. Her shining face as she leaned down to me made me reach up and take her hand.

“Can I ask you something?” she said.

“Sure!” I replied.

“Were you once a teacher at Somerville High?”

“Yes I was!” I happily admitted and then she told me her name and like magic there she suddenly was in my mind as her 16-year-old self.

She gestured then toward the three young men and asked if they were my sons.

A dozen answers came to my lips but the one I finally came out with felt the most honest:

“They’re … well they’re the sons of my heart,”I said.

And when I think of the things they do for me, like today’s Herculean task, and of all the hours we have spent together talking after seeing a play or movie, or while riding in my car, and how many of their papers and essays I have looked at, eyes peeled for the run-on-sentence, the pronoun that doesn’t agree with its antecedent, the pitfalls you risk falling into with too many adverbs, I realize that they really ARE the sons of my heart, and am so proud that this lovely former student took them for mine.

Here they are now, Tobi Omola, Enderson Naar and Rayvoughn Millings. What great things they will do in the world one day! What great weight they mean to one day carry on all our behalf!

tobi solo outdoors oct 7

enderson al fresco

ray carrying newsletter

Holiday Surprises

Things aren’t going that great around  here. We began having the kitchen painted the Monday after Thanksgiving and as of this past Tuesday all the kitchen stuff was still in the dining room. Holiday decorating!

merry xmas pull up a chair

My little guys came over a week ago and put all the fake-dripping-wax 1980s-era candles in the windows but the rest of the project stalled.

I didn’t even buy the tree ’til last Sunday, in the pouring rain and dark, and failed to notice at the time that it has a kind of giant goiter of branches on one side only. Hence it falls over.

Twice it careened onto the ground and once, when we turned it goiter side in, it fell into the wall behind it , which made the front half of its base life right up off the floor

Last night just before dinner was the last time it fell. We heard that telltale whoosh and then a sort of muffled thud as of a heavy person sitting down on the floor. We hurried into the living room and there it was.

There it is I should say. It’s there as I write.

Another complicating factor in my week was my last-minute opportunity to go with all the ABC scholars I love, and their Resident Academic Coordinator Mario Paredes, into the Boston State House to meet with the Honorable Deval Patrick , Governor of the Commonwealth.

What a lovely man he is, who made these eight feel how much he has in common with them , having himself left home at 14 to be an ABC student at Milton Academy.

I was too shy to ask for a picture of me alone with him but everyone else got to do that as the official photographer snapped away.

This picture is one Mario took as we first sat down together at the table in that jewel of an office in the old Bulfinch building.  Look at these happy faces! How glad I am that Mario arranged this and the Governor agreed to give us 30 minutes!

at the table with governor patrick

It’s a lesson to me: nobody cares what the table looks like at most gathering, as long as everyone can find a seat at it.

And we’ll get there on the house preparations. Today we’re lashing the tree with wire to hardware on the two windows that flank it. The show must go on!  🙂

whoops tree down

Here’s the tree after its third and most recent  fainting spell. ( Sigh.)  At least there aren’t any lights or ornaments on it yet.