Getting it Write

One of my goals following early retirement was to find meaningful volunteer work. With a corporate background in communications and writing, I wondered how I could use my skills to help others in the community. What kind of volunteering could I do, and where could I do it?

As I sought out other retirees, asking about their volunteer experiences, it got confusing. Everyone loved what they were doing, but nothing sounded like a good “fit” for me. So I did more research. The nearby suburban hospital volunteer program was “full.” They could put me on a waiting list if I wanted to fill out an application. Next, I called a St. Paul high school, where I had been involved in a corporate program, and offered to work with English or journalism students. No one called me back.

I soon realized that most of my attempts were half-hearted. I wasn’t truly inspired by anyone or anything to offer up my time and talent. I wanted to use my particular set of skills, but nothing seemed to match that. Then a page caught my eye as I was reading the AARP magazine. It highlighted a website identifying volunteer needs by location. DARTS was the first organization that popped up when I entered my address. They were looking for someone to write feature articles about volunteers. How perfect!

I knew DARTS was located in West St. Paul, near the close-knit community where I grew up, and that they had buses. What I found out, after visiting the Website, was the extent of the services they provide for the elderly and the programs they facilitate for elementary students in Dakota County. I was surprised, and I was inspired.

There was no doubt in my mind this was the perfect “fit” I had been looking for, so I emailed the contact person, Barb Tiggemann, to get the ball rolling. She sent me an application, and I provided her with a list of references, along with my resume and consent for a background check.

During my interview, Barb explained the types of writing projects they would assign to me, and we talked extensively about all the programs at DARTS. I was anxious to start writing articles about the volunteers, but wondered if there was more I could do for this worthwhile organization. Barb seemed to read my mind.

“Now that you know more about us, are there any other volunteer opportunities you would be interested in?” she asked.

I told her I would love to work with elementary students. Without teaching experience, though, I wasn’t sure if I was qualified for the Learning Buddies Program, which places adult volunteers in the classroom. I wondered if my writing skills could be utilized. Within a few weeks, the coordinator of Learning Buddies, Erin Walloch, “matched” me up with Mrs. Kennelly, a fourth-grade teacher at Garlough Elementary in West St. Paul. My “dream job” became a reality when she asked me to work one-on-one with several of her best students to “take their writing to the next level.”

My volunteer experience at DARTS has been challenging, fulfilling and rewarding. I have met, interviewed and written stories about fascinating volunteers. Then every Thursday I look forward to two hours with an incredible group of fourth-graders who never cease to amaze me with their curiosity, creativity and questions. None of that would have been possible without the professional guidance and direction provided by Barb, Erin and the entire DARTS organization.

By Patrice Peterson, Freelance Writer and DARTS Volunteer