Share the Care An Interview by Ben Ho Kathy smiles at me “You’re a good listener!” she says with the cheeriest of voices. I had commented on how she is still incorporating books into her volunteering, the same way she had earlier in her life as a low-income school volunteer. It was amazing, she could be telling me about how sweet and nice of a person she was and stop mid sentence to give me a compliment. This is something that Kathy does often. It doesn’t matter if I were to make a little remark or even do nothing at all. Kathy would give me a compliment. A compliment that felt as warm and kind as the woman sitting in front of me. A woman who was taking time out of her day to come down to her tennis partners house and get grilled with questions about her life. She continued to explain, “It has been the most wonderful experience. Every day I go in there it makes me happy. Everybody in there feels like that.”
Kathy says happily “A big part of what we’re doing is for the volunteers. So all the volunteers, everybody, is so thanked and rewarded for everything they do.” I could feel the excitement in her voice as her eyes lit up. This program means more to her than anything else she talked to me about. It’s more than just a place to go and sit at a desk, It’s more than just a place for her to help someone, this program is a place for kathy the help herself. I knew that I was going to interview Kathy the moment I heard about her. I knew she was doing something amazing for the community but I never could have imagined the amazing things that she is doing for herself. Kathy was diagnosed with lung cancer a year and a half ago. This was after she had done some volunteering and had already known she loved it. Then her cancer got worse and has now spread to her bones and many of her organs.
Being diagnosed with terminal cancer isn’t something that most of us have to think about, but its scary. “I have cancer and I have gone through lots of times feeling sorry for myself and feeling badly and it’s good to go out and be with other people and see that I can still help others that are maybe in worse shape than I am.” This is the amazing thing about Kathy. She wants to help people no matter what situation she is in. She helped people before she had cancer and she helps people now. We all know that volunteering makes you feel good, but there are hidden benefits that go way beyond your mind. Kathy Engelson volunteers to help save lives and in doing so is helping to save her own. As we drive through the suburban neighborhoods of Menlo Park everything seems normal. The brick and shingle houses, the cute “Kids at Play” signs, even the california sun shines down the middle of the road as if to say
“This is a perfectly normal neighborhood”. Then, out of nowhere, A large building appears. Literally placed in the middle of a neighborhood, a giant grey monolith stands two stories high with signs labeled for a few small businesses. I scroll through the listings until I see what i’m looking for: ‘G - ThereWithCare’. We drive towards the front of the building, nondescript and more industrious than I would have expected. As I get out I see the small oval sign on a bleak grey wall “There With Care”. Its colorful letters jet out at my eyes like a small shimmer of hope on an otherwise dull wall. Suddenly the windowed door opens and Kathy peers out at us, smiling as she beckons us in. I walk in to see a plethora of childrens books on shelves to my left. Kathy points to them and explains that she tries to incorporate reading into her current work with kids, a remainder from her previous volunteering. As she talks I can hear the wheeze in her voice, tainting her golden warm tone. We walk down through the rows of shelves labeled “Boys Diapers” and “Bottles”.
Kathy is at peace here. She knows every nook and cranny and has a story with each picture on the wall. “We had these parents take a picture with their sick child before he died.” Kathy explains as she points to a professional looking photo of a young couple and their baby. The picture is black and white, the family looks nice but different. They are happier than anyone else in the world to be clutching on to the last days of their childs life. Kathy leads me up the narrow stairway to her desk. The whole There With Care building is very narrow, like a giant walk in closet for any item of baby clothing or diaper size that you could ever want, complete with an industrial sized fridge full of formula. Before Kathy said a word about the volunteering helping her with cancer, I knew it had. Just the way she acted in this place let me know. Kathy isn’t the only one to be positively affected by volunteering, there have been many studies linking volunteering to increased health. “Volunteering combats depression. Reducing the risk of depression is another important benefit of volunteering.
A key risk factor for depression is social isolation. Volunteering keeps you in regular contact with others and helps you develop a solid support system, which in turn protects you against stress and depression when you’re going through challenging times.” (Norris West, “Volunteering Produces Health Benefits”). This study is definitely applicable to Kathy who told me, “People feel isolated when they’re sick. I know that when it happened to me, and you’re getting treatment, you have to go home and stay home by yourself for long periods of time, you feel isolated and that makes you feel down.” There With Care felt more like a home than a work place. There were posters strewn across the walls and every inch was taken up by toys and books. Kathy and the small crew she worked with had personalized There With Care to be the perfect place for Volunteering. As I sat next to Kathy in her office she explained the amazing story of how There With Care began. “It was started in Colorado about 7 years ago.
The gal who started it in Colorado, she was actually the producer for the Harry Potter film in England.” I could see the excitement coming back into Kathy’s eyes as she spoke. “At one point a parent was contacting the Harry Potter studios and it accidently got delivered to her phone and this parent had this critically ill child who they knew wasn’t going to make it. Their wish was to see the Harry Potter film. So she said bring him on over here and we’ll figure it out, and she saw how that helped so much. It just gave him some joy, so she did that with other kids and she thought these kids are so isolated because they’re sick and I’m going to do something to help them. She started this non-profit called There with Care, and what it does is it helps families who have critically ill children during the time of their acute illness.” Kathy had an amazing amount of respect for the founder of there with care, and rightfully so. “They’ve opened a Bay Area branch and I saw an email about it and it just appealed to me because there was the volunteering part, and the Colorado part (I’m from Colorado) and kids, I love kids.
Most of these kids have Cancer and I have Cancer, so it just seemed like a match.” I could hear the wheeze in her voice again as she got excited about the story. Besides her tainted vocal cords, Kathy seemed to be very healthy. She walked me through the entire building, she had all her hair despite chemotherapy and most importantly she was always happy. We stepped out of her cubicle and walked over to the railing. As she looked out over the rows and rows of shelves Kathy explained to me how she travels all over the bay to help children, ”The other day I delivered a toddler bed to this woman. This was a little unusual, she had triplets, she’s 20 years old, and she has a 2 year old. The reason she came to us was because the triplets were all Preemies and all in the intensive care, but now they’re all home and they’re all fine and she needed a toddler bed for her 2 year old so she could give the crib to the triplets. Yesterday I brought her the bed and some groceries and then we won’t be helping her anymore because she’s not in need right now.” I assumed that the cancer would impair her from doing activities and cause more problems with physical
aspects of Kathy’s life, and it does. However, volunteering has been found to provide people more than just mental benefits, “Volunteering helps you stay physically healthy. Volunteering is good for your health at any age, but it’s especially beneficial in older adults. Studies have found that those who volunteer have a lower mortality rate than those who do not, even when considering factors like the health of the participants. Volunteering has also been shown to lessen symptoms of chronic pain or heart disease.” (Dr. Sanjay Gupta “Volunteering for Your Health”). Kathy’s physical health could definitely be attributed to this, but there is no question about her mental health, “A study of adults age 65 and older found that the positive effect of volunteering on physical and mental health is due to the personal sense of accomplishment an individual gains from his or her volunteer activities.” (Joanna Saisan “Volunteering and its Surprising Benefits”). This was definitely apparent at There With Care and with Kathy, who explained to me “The camaraderie at the office is just such a good feeling.
It just seems like the type of people who volunteer for this program are usually people who have been touch by some type of critical illness and they can just feel it. Everybody is just trying to make a little bit of a difference.” Going into the project I thought that I was going to focus solely
on volunteering as a way to improve your health. Instead I found the amazing story of a woman that is willing to help people, no matter her physical or mental state. Volunteering truly does help people that are sick. Not just the recipients, but the volunteers themselves. The only catch is that it takes
someone like Kathy to feel the full effects. “I do it because it makes me happy, It makes me feel good, and I would highly recommend it.” There is no set amount of time that Kathy has left to live. The doctors gave her two years, but who knows. If she keeps volunteering, kathy could be helping others for a long time to come.