Giving back, getting back

She’s volunteered her time with the Green Party and a number of arts organizations, but Lisa Mabley’s longest-lasting and most meaningful volunteer experience is her connection with her Little Sister. It’s not a blood or legal relationship; Camilla Carey wasn’t born into the Mabley family or adopted by Mabley’s parents. The two met by arrangement when they were matched through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

“A huge amount of Big-Little relationships don’t last more than a year. We’ve been together for seven and a half years now,” said Mabley, who lives in Minneapolis. “We both have an appreciation for each other.” Camilla was in the program, in part, because she missed her older half-sister in Chicago and wanted to replicate the relationship. They became so close that Mabley displayed Camilla’s picture on the wall at her workplace.

It’s a girl thing
According to the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administrators (MAVA), a trade organization for those who manage volunteers, Mabley is in the majority: 72 percent of Minnesota women volunteer an average of more than 188 hours per year. Although many more women than men donate their time, a majority of Minnesota men-61 percent-also volunteer. These numbers contribute to Minnesota’s ranking as fifth nationwide in the percentage of adults who volunteer. According to Public Relations and Marketing Associate Berit Griffin, 63 percent of Big Brothers Big Sisters volunteers are female. “The average Big (adult volunteer) spends 27 months with their Little (child),” Griffin said, adding that while Mabley’s long-term commitment is “fairly unusual,” there are a number of Big-Little relationships that last a lifetime; recently, a Big Brother died at the age of 88, after having a more than 60-year relationship with his Little.

Why they do it
Mabley decided to become a Big Sister after she benefited from a Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota [WARM] program that matched young artists with more experienced ones. “I was mentored by Jean Humke, a sculptor, for two years through WARM’s mentoring program,” Mabley said. Grateful for the experience, “I wanted to give back.”

Wanting to give back is a common reason women volunteer their time. Other reasons are because they enjoy volunteering, feel a personal satisfaction, know there’s a need, or feel morally obligated.

A combination of factors led Marilou Chanrasmi of St. Paul to volunteer with Pet Haven, a 52-year-old organization that relies solely on volunteers. Chanrasmi and her partner started out fostering a dog through Pet Haven, whom they later adopted. “I had never seen such a dedicated group of volunteers,” Chanrasmi said. “Some people had been volunteering with the organization for 20 years.” Chanrasmi was also impressed with Pet Haven’s level of organization and clear mission. She began volunteering in October 2006, and before long was asked to apply for the volunteer position of human resources director. “I absolutely love what I am doing,” said Chanrasmi, who estimates the number of hours she devotes to Pet Haven as equivalent to those of her full-time job. “Making a difference in the lives of dogs and cats … how many lives we are able to save … it means more to me than I can put into words.” Chanrasmi estimates that 90 percent of Pet Haven’s volunteers are women.

Marlys Tiedman is as passionate about working with children as Chanrasmi is about animal rescue. “I always said that when I retired, I was going to do something to help kids,” said the Inver Grove Heights woman. “I guess I’m a consummate volunteer; I’ve worked at church [she taught Sunday School for 26 years], was president of the women’s board, worked with the Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, PTA.” Six and a half years ago Tiedman retired from her career in banking and “went back to fourth grade” as a learning buddy at Salem Hills Elementary School near her home.

“I like to look in the children’s eyes,” Tiedman said, “I just feel that they need some one-on-one attention. Many of them don’t get that. I like interacting with them, they’re fun. I always wanted to have half a dozen children; I only have two, plus four grandchildren.”

Tiedman works with children who have fallen behind or need a little extra help. “With today’s large classes, sometimes there’s bedlam. I think the relationships are just as important to the children as the learning. I remember one little boy, leaning over him … I’m very gray. He said to me, ‘Are you a grandma? I wish you were my grandma.'”

Sherry Patterson hears these kinds of stories all the time. She’s the Learning Buddies coordinator at Dakota Area Resources and Transportation for Seniors (DARTS). “I have the best job in the world,” said Patterson, herself a veteran volunteer who is raising her three children to volunteer too. “I get to see the joy these seniors feel, going to work with the kids each week, and also the joy on the kids’ faces when the senior volunteer walks into the room.” Patterson said that volunteers like Tiedman go above and beyond their job descriptions. “Marlys will bring treats when there’s a birthday or a special occasion. She takes home puzzles that need straightening. The teacher she works with sent me a huge list of all the extra things Marlys does.”

Most of the 100 learning buddies in DART’s program start around age 60. There is one 92-year-old volunteer who told Patterson that the program “is really keeping me going.” About 85 percent of the learning buddies are women, Patterson said.

Learning from each other
About 64 percent of Minnesotans who volunteer do so in a faith-based or religious organization. Lisa Mabley’s little sister Camilla Carey volunteered for four years through her church. “When I started (at age 12), I didn’t even know what volunteering was,” Carey said. “There was a new youth director at our church (Calvary Baptist), and I volunteered in Minneapolis, at a food shelf, and on mission trips to Boston and Chattanooga, Tenn.” Carey thinks volunteering is important because “it makes you feel so good to help,” and also looks at it as a way to keep teenagers occupied. “I could have been out drinking and smoking. It was a way to stay out of trouble, and I learned that I liked helping people. It helped me decide that I want to be an RN.”

Just as volunteering opened Carey’s eyes to others’ needs, her relationship with Mabley has given her insights, too. “We’ve done a lot of different things,” Carey said. “She took me swimming, I’d never been swimming. My mother didn’t know how to swim. I’d never been horseback riding. Lisa opened doors for me.”

Mabley said that having Carey in her life has made it richer. “Most of my workplace and my social circle is white. I’m more compassionate and a better person just for getting to know people who are different from me.”

Their relationship has helped Mabley learn the importance of respecting certain boundaries. Mabley said, “I think Camilla is sensitive about people judging her, white people in particular.” She has chosen to tread lightly with Carey on certain topics, and thinks that has strengthened their relationship.

Carey appreciates that understanding. “Lisa’s someone you can talk to. I like that she don’t judge anybody, and she’s real with people.” Mabley’s nonjudgmental attitude was helpful when Carey became pregnant last year. “She was afraid to tell me,” Mabley said. Though they discussed options, Carey was adamant: She did not believe in abortion, and wanted to raise the baby herself. The pregnancy came as a shock to Mabley, who is passionate about the topic of sex education; her influence had helped Carey become a leader on topics of contraception and sexually transmitted diseases in her health class.

Now that Carey is 18, a mother who goes to school full time and has a part-time job, she and Mabley have less time together-but they still talk on the phone and go shopping.

Though Mabley oriiginally signed up as a Big Sister to give back, she said she’s gotten as much as Carey from their relationship. “Camilla is smart and a fun, interesting person,” Mabley said. “She tells it like it is; not all of my friends do.”

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