Tuesday, October 26, 1999

A big round of applause for regular heroes

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I'll bet my friend Jan didn't do a darn thing to commemorate Make a Difference Day last week. She probably let this national day of good deeds pass right by her.

        My guess is that she just went about her usual business, which is educating children. Then when she got home after a full day of work, she carried some food to the foodless. Or to the grieving. Or simply to somebody who was having a hard time.

        Or maybe it was her night to work on the Interfaith Hospitality Network. This is a program that helps families temporarily in need of shelter. She doesn't really do very much, Jan told me. She is one of hundreds of people in churches all over the city who make it work in large and small ways. For instance, there are Don and Gayle Jackson.

        Besides doing a lot of organizing, the Jacksons had the idea of taking family pictures. “For some people,” Jan says, “it was their first family portrait.”

        A small thing. But vital.

        Another night Jan volunteers at Fernside, a place where children are helped to deal with the death of a loved one. On weekends, she teaches Sunday school.

KKK antidote
        Jan and her husband, Larry, who helped build a Habitat for Humanity house, came down to Fountain Square last Christmas to pray as an antidote to the Ku Klux Klan's annual exercise of its right to free expression. Very quietly. But faithfully. They are part of that skein of volunteers who shore up our community every day of the year.

        Regular heroes, you might say.

        The latest national study on volunteerism by the Gallup Organization found that 56 percent of American adults volunteer for community service. I really wasn't surprised. It seems as though everybody I know is running a race for leukemia or golfing for breast cancer research.

        Or something.

        The Gallup study estimates that adults donate a total of 19.9 billion hours. That doesn't count the number of hours donated by young people.

        This month, I was a judge in two programs to honor contributions made to the community by young people. The Golden Galaxy Awards go to high school seniors, and Tri- Health Spirit of Women Awards tries to identify “unsung heroines, women who have not been recognized in any major way but whose contributions are substantial,” including those as young as 14.

        After a few hours of sorting through letters telling about teen-agers who work at Hospice and deliver Meals on Wheels and rebuild churches and tutor little kids, the only person I felt fit to judge was myself.

        And what, I asked my sorry self, were you doing when you were in high school? Short-sheeting somebody's bed, I suppose.

        I certainly was not making a difference to anybody.

Using the extra day
        Make a Difference Day was begun by USA Weekend in 1992, a leap year.

        “The idea was to take the extra day and do something good to make a difference. And the response was overwhelming,” said Marcia Stein, spokeswoman for The Points of Light Foundation in Washington, D.C., who co-hosts the annual event. Last year, 14 million people benefited from volunteer projects on Make a Difference Day. And some of the people who just intended to help out on this one day have made a habit of it.

        They do make a difference, these people. And I hope they know it. I hope when they grow weary of asking their friends for money, when they have delivered a couple of hundred warm meals to others and gone home to eat a cold one of their own, that they remember that this community, this country would simply come to a screeching halt without them.

        Volunteers. Making a difference every day. Doing more than we think.

        Certainly more than they have to.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears regularly on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and Insight Communications' Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com