Making someone’s day just by showing up: Teen shares her experience as a Providence Teen Volunteer
I have to admit that when Sister Joni first proposed the idea for this Providence Teen Volunteer program to me when I was in middle school, I was skeptical. “Teenagers? Volunteering?” I thought. “Good luck with that!” But I liked Sister Joni, and I could tell how much this meant to her, so I agreed. And when I first met the other teens and watched them with the residents, I was in awe. I am glad that I decided to come along on this journey.
My name is Amanda Lakstins, and I am currently a freshman at Terre Haute South High School. I had been to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods many times before I joined the Teen Ministry program. It was a place my family came to enjoy Sunday brunches, alumnae dinners, and more. Both my mother and my grandmother are graduates of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. This campus is one of my favorite places and has become a sort of second home to me, even more so since I’ve joined the Teen Ministry program. It is a beautiful place, full of nature and spiritual wonders. It’s as if you can simply feel the peace of God settle around you.
Volunteering with the group
Sister Joni is really the person who got me into volunteering. I hadn’t done any volunteering before this, and it felt good to realize that even as a teenager, I can make a difference. I think that’s the most important thing I’ve learned throughout this: it doesn’t matter how old you are, or that you can’t do something, you can always help someone else.
My first summer morning volunteering, we sat around a conference table, a ragtag group of teens and a couple of sisters. I forget exactly how many of us there were, but it wasn’t many. We met in the morning, talked about what we were doing that day, did an icebreaker game, and prayed (much as we still do). Then, we went into healthcare, and the teens who had been there before went to work. I, however, only followed them wondering what we were doing, exactly, and how to do it. The older teens went up to the residents and just talked to them. They knew most of them by name, and most of the residents knew them by name as well. So I stepped up and did what everyone else was doing (following the crowd isn’t always a bad thing, just saying!), and before long I started to get the hang of it. Before then I hadn’t realized how much talking can mean to someone. And I hadn’t realized how much talking could mean for me, too. We also did exercise with the residents, took them to Mass, and whatever else they might be doing. After our morning activities, we went to lunch with some of the sisters who were still in active ministry. They were always lots of fun, and they were fascinated with our program. I could answer their questions in my sleep by the end of it, but I didn’t mind. I think, for me, that’s what made it seem important at first — that other people thought so. It was just a ragtag group of teens talking to the residents. Not much special about that, right? Only later did I realize how untrue that was.
Today, the Teen Volunteer program has grown (and by that I mean three things: we have more teens, the teens that we have have grown and Sister Joni has gotten better at her part of it!) The importance of this work didn’t fully dawn on me until recently. The people in healthcare and the teens alike benefit. The residents in healthcare get to meet teens and people who will talk to them and interact with them. That doesn’t necessarily just mean talking, either. There was one resident I connected with who simply loved for me to push him around the halls in his wheelchair. The nurses were a little shocked because, apparently, he wouldn’t let anyone else push him in his wheelchair, but he loved it when I did. He also loved to walk holding the rail along the edge of the hall. They needed two people for that, one to hold his arm (that was always a nurse) and one to push the wheelchair behind in case he needed to sit. He was always happy when I came, because usually there was no one who could spare the time to push his wheelchair and he knew I would.
That’s really my favorite part of volunteering, connecting with people. It doesn’t have to be some grand gesture; it can be as simple as pushing someone through the hall or sitting and holding their hand. That has always been special to me: to see a smile light up someone’s face, knowing I’m part of the reason they’re happy. To walk in and have people smile because they know me and like me and they’re happy to see me. That is definitely the most satisfying part. We usually think of volunteering as weeding a garden or picking up trash (those are important too, of course), but it can be more. It can be making someone’s day just by showing up. It can be learning things you never knew from someone who experienced it first-hand. It can be the satisfied feeling you get when someone laughs at a joke you made. Volunteering isn’t just mundane tasks. It’s knowing and feeling and connecting with people. That’s what the teens get: we learn how to talk, and connect and listen. We learn what’s right for us and what we can do, in a time in our lives where we’re searching for meaning. And we show that teenagers aren’t just bratty and ungrateful; we’re people and we’re capable of meeting, and talking, and learning, and relating to people on such a deep level if they are just willing to let us.
I do have to say that this wasn’t all a cakewalk. Learning to interact with the residents was a challenge. Usually you have to yell (they’re hard of hearing), and sometimes they’re confused and think you’re someone else. It was hard at first. There were days I wondered if what I was doing really mattered, or if they even knew what was going on. There were days I questioned, and doubted, and wondered if I was volunteering well enough. Then I realized that it wasn’t necessarily the end result of what I was doing that mattered, but the process. It didn’t matter if someone didn’t remember that they had had fun and smiled yesterday, only that they enjoyed it in the moment. Some of the residents are confused and they didn’t remember us. But they had had fun with us, and they had fun with us once they “met” us again. And that does matter. It matters that we (the teens) do what we do, and that the residents have fun with us. Because even if they don’t remember, it still happened. They still had a day full of joy and fun, and they could have another one when we come back. It is hard, sometimes, to think that what you’re doing is important if it isn’t remembered. But every day matters, especially to the residents who are sick, who are dying, and who live with endless monotony in their lives every day. One day, one moment, one second of joy can make a difference to them. Because happiness can always make a difference.
And that’s why one other thing was always hard for me: saying goodbye. Leaving after two days or a week and having to tell the people that did remember that I wouldn’t be back for a long time. And knowing that next time I came back, one of them might be dead, or one of them might not remember. That is also hard. But even if they died, I knew that I had still made a difference. I knew that they had smiled, and in that moment, that was enough.
Making a difference
I want to end with some advice to my fellow teenagers, especially those considering this program. Yes, this is hard. But it’s also so, so rewarding. It’s okay to be awkward at first (I know I was). It’s okay to be discouraged (I think we all were at some point). It’s okay to take things at your own pace. Because just remember, whatever you do, you can and will make a difference. You have so much love in your heart and so much energy and passion. And just because you aren’t good at this or that, or you don’t know something, remember this: you can still change the world, one relationship, one smile, one good day at a time.
Sign up for our summer teen volunteer opportunities June 3-6 and 10-13. Share the gift of your presence!