I still remember the day. It was Christmas, 2015. I had called the Extension Women’s Campus a few days before to ask if I could bring cookies and small wrapped gifts for the residents. I was told, yes, the ladies will be grateful for my gifts and that someone would be on campus to accept my holiday offerings. So I arrived with ten dozen freshly baked cookies plus shopping bags filled with wrapped journals and pens for the residents.
I had decided for the holidays that year to spend it quietly in service to others. My daughter had moved away and my son was just a few months out of treatment and living out of state in a long-term transitional sober living facility. I was very grateful for his successful recovery so far, and needed a simple holiday without the hustle and bustle of previous years.
As I arrived at the Women’s Campus, I saw a few young women sitting on a rear porch enjoying some sunshine and cigarettes. I told them why I was there, and one went inside to inform the property monitor of my presence. I spent a few minutes talking to the women and explained that my son was in recovery in another state and that I just wanted to do something nice for those on the same journey closer to home.
The property monitor was the person I had spoken with on the phone, and when she appeared, she greeted me with a big smile. I still get to see her big smile each week because she’s Christy Hamby and is now the Case Manager for the residents on campus. We unloaded the shopping bags and trays of cookies, and I shared with her the story of my son’s recovery journey and my parallel journey to a saner life now. She gave me a heartfelt hug, and I felt an instant connection to this special community.
I was in recovery myself…recovery from being a codependent enabler for my son. I was working my own 12-step program and rebuilding my life. It was amazing to discover how much time I had to focus on myself now that I was no longer enmeshed in my son’s former chaotic days of active addiction.
I thought about my Christmas Day visit and my chat with the ladies for the next few weeks. I was looking for ways to be of service and called to ask about volunteer opportunities at the Women’s Campus. A month later I was a regular on the calendar volunteering a few hours each week doing the least glamorous jobs in the organization: answering the phone and providing office support. My initial idea had been to do whatever I could to support the residents, but I soon realized I could best serve the residents and the mission at the Extension Women’s Campus by doing exactly what I was doing, thereby easing the burden of Program Director Wynema Barber and the Case Manager at that time.
So I added “Volunteering at The Extension Women’s Campus” to my growing list of other recovery work that included being a speaker at family workshops and a family mentor at a couple of treatment centers out of state, along with attending meetings with a wonderfully supportive Nar-Anon Family Group.
On most days at The Extension, I field calls from women seeking placement in the program, so I go through a pre-screening questionnaire with them. If our program is not appropriate for their situation or needs, I always give them referrals to other programs which might be a better fit for them. It’s important to me to never end a call without giving the caller a referral and a few words of encouragement and hope.
Many other calls come from friends or family members and often times, I recognize the desperation and sadness in their voices; they remind me of my “old days.” I answer their questions about the program and our services, but I think it’s equally important to offer information and compassion for what they are experiencing. Addiction is a family disease and affects everyone involved with the person in active addiction. Families need to heal as well. I know what they are going through and tell them so, and talk to them about the importance of taking care of themselves by finding a 12-step support group or other outlet.
I remember one caller in particular, a man who called hoping to find a treatment option for his girlfriend of two years who had tried to keep her addiction a secret from him until her life spiraled out of control. I gathered information from him about his girlfriend and told him about our prescreening and interview process. Then I asked him what he was doing to take care of himself through all of it. There was a moment of silence, and then I realized the man had started to cry. He told me that he had been on the phone for hours calling more than two dozen places, and I was the first person who had taken the time to actually talk to him. In trying to save his girlfriend, he had already lost his home and a car and a job that he loved. He felt lost and alone, but I assured him that everyone who loves someone suffering from an addiction, including me, knows how he feels. We talked for several more minutes, and I told him where to find a 12-step meeting where he would find a roomful of support, people just like me waiting to ease his burden.
Other duties for me during a typical day include some normal office work such as making copies and filing plus accepting donations of food, clothing and supplies. And I do get to interact with our courageous residents as they sign in and out to go to work and appear in the office for meetings and sessions. The connection and power of the community on campus is palpable and, I believe, it is the reason for the strength and success of our program.
It’s such an awesome thing for me to witness the transformation from when a resident comes into the program lost in the insanity of her disease to the day they transition out to independent living as sober women with hope and support and skills to live a better life. Granted, not all women here make it through the year of treatment. It’s hard work, and some leave when it gets tough, but I always hope that one day they realize that they are worth the effort and will once again reach out for help.
A few months ago, I was asked to step up as Volunteer Coordinator, so now I also conduct the orientation, training and scheduling of new volunteers. We have a small core of dedicated and dependable individuals, but I wish I was busier showing new folks the office ropes. There are still time slots to fill on the weekly calendar, so I’m inviting anyone who has a few extra hours each week to give us a try at the Women’s Campus. I know my life has been enriched by volunteering here, and I’m a better person for it.
When I brought those Christmas cookies to the campus almost four years ago, I never dreamed I’d still be volunteering here today, but I found a real need for service to the dedicated staff and hard-working residents. I’m grateful for the opportunity, and it feels good to be a part of the solution.
Editor’s note: If you think volunteering at The Extension’s women’s campus office might be for you, please call Robin at the women’s center at 770-528-4852. For information about a host of other volunteer opportunities, please call Tyler at 770-590-9075. Thanks!