The Community Action Council of Howard County (CAC) has about 100 employees, but thanks to volunteers, the organization’s impact extends well beyond what 100 people can do.
Without volunteers, the Howard County Food Bank, which employs only seven people, would have to “close its doors and its work would come to a screeching halt,” said CAC’s Director of Food Services Phillip Dodge. In any given month, about 300 people volunteer at CAC, and 200 of those work at the food bank, according to Volunteer Coordinator Sarah Schindehette. Food bank volunteers check expiration dates of donated food, sort and stock shelves, check clients in and post their new information into a computer, assist and answer clients’ questions while they’re shopping, and check clients out.
CAC’s garden areas in the Long Reach Garden Plot site in Columbia require a groundswell of volunteer support to maintain. Virtually everyone who works there is a volunteer. The only exception is CAC’s volunteer coordinator, who oversees the garden volunteers. Most of these volunteers come in groups from companies that provide time for their workers to volunteer. When individuals volunteer, they are coupled with groups from companies. There is also a small core group of experienced garden volunteers who plan CAC’s garden. At harvest time, which varies from produce to produce, the fruits of the volunteers’ labor are given to the Howard County Food Bank. Last year, the garden yielded 2,400 pounds of organic produce.
In CAC’s four Head Start centers, preschoolers get more individualized attention than staff can give them thanks to classroom aides. In addition, volunteers sometimes supplement the program by teaching Head Start children skills such as brushing their teeth. Head Start volunteers also read to children, not only giving little ones’ exposure to someone new and different, but also showing them that people outside their classrooms care about them.
Volunteers are also important at CAC’s main office on Columbia Gateway Drive where the organization’s fiscal department, administrative staff, and most of CAC’s Rapid Response team that handles energy and housing assistance are located. Office volunteers answer phones during the lunch hour, file papers, and enter data into computers.
All CAC volunteers deserve thanks because, as Sarah says, “They could be doing anything they want, but they choose to be here.”
If you would like to volunteer for CAC, visit OUR WEBSITE.
Below are some volunteers who choose to devote their time to CAC. We salute them and all the other volunteers who improve and stretch CAC’s services.
‘Ms. Cookie’ is in her Sweet Spot
For 45 hours each week, volunteer “Ms. Cookie” provides an extra set of hands, ears, eyes, and heart at the Dasher Green Head Start Center. She can be found everywhere – cheerfully greeting 3 and 4 year olds as they enter the building, answering phones and laminating papers in her office, checking the daily food supply and decorating bulletin boards in the hallways, duplicating materials at the copier, and darting in and out of classrooms to provide assistance whenever needed.
“She goes above and beyond, and she’s quick. She saves me so much time as a teacher,” commented Mary Edwards. “Within five minutes (after making a request) my stuff is here.”
“We love her. She’s always asking if we need anything else,” according to Tiffany Cook, assistant teacher. Tiffany said that if children are upset “Ms. Cookie” will ask them if they’re OK and give them big hugs.
Perhaps no one should be surprised that a mother of nine would take a job where she is surrounded by children and has a multitude of duties. “My life has always centered around children,” said “Ms. Cookie.” Her real last name is Ms. Adams, but she prefers to be called “Ms. Cookie.” With only one minor child left at home, the Columbia resident said she didn’t want “to sit around and do nothing” so she volunteered at Dasher Green.
“Ms. Cookie,” who has also lived in Philadelphia and Annapolis, volunteered at all the Head Start centers and the elementary schools where her nine children attended.
She loves the job, and was overjoyed that she was given her own office when she started volunteering at Dasher Green last October. “The only way I’m leaving is if they send me away,” she commented.
On the Move
Having completed 20 marathons in her life, Julie Baker isn’t one to sit around, but she does do considerable standing as a volunteer who checks clients out of the Howard County Food Bank. This job requires stretching over a counter to reach and position filled grocery carts so they can be weighed on a floor scale. After some light banter with shoppers, Julie records the weight on clients’ papers and then the official food bank database. After that, shoppers are free to leave the store with their groceries.
“It brings me tremendous satisfaction to be involved with an organization and people committed to making life better for others,” said Julie, who started volunteering at the food bank in February 2016 as a shelf stocker. Though personal satisfaction is enough to keep Julie content at the food bank, she also thoroughly enjoys the clients, other volunteers, and staff.
The Columbia resident retired from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2016, where she worked for 38 years. Her last position was Chief Financial Officer at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. She holds a bachelor’s degree with a major in government from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, and a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University in Syracuse, NY.
Julie has another volunteer activity that relates to her love of physical activity – she’s a coach for Girls on the Run, an organization that inspires young women to be healthy and confident using a curriculum that integrates running. Julie is an inspiration, both for young women in Girls on the Run and for those who aspire to serve the community.
A Friendly Face
Jim Ehle has the gift of gab, and puts it to good use at the Howard County Food Bank by greeting and checking in clients, assisting shoppers in the marketplace, and weighing shoppers’ carts just before customers leave. He also posts new client information into a computer.
In the past, Jim has volunteered at CAC’s switchboard during the lunch hour at the Columbia Gateway Drive’s main office and as a file clerk at the same location. He started volunteering for CAC three years ago.
The Columbia resident spends 12 hours a week working at the food bank where he’s known for his friendly smile and jovial personality. “I’m an equal opportunity harasser,” he says. It’s an example of how humor creeps into his personality and conversations.
“What I get out of volunteering is that people who come here are in need and truly thankful for the food bank being here,” he says. He admits that volunteer work helps him organize his life now that he is retired. “Sitting around is not what I want to do,” said Jim, who frequents a gym regularly to stay active.
Not surprisingly, Jim’s professional career included two jobs that kept him in contact with people – he was a teacher and sold imprinted sportswear. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and a master’s degree from Western Michigan University. Both formal degrees are in education, but clearly life has taught him to give back to the community.
Making a Difference
Ivette Lopez* is petite, but she fills some big needs at CAC. Ivette answers phones at the main office during the lunch hour on Wednesdays and also assists clients at the Howard County Food Bank on Wednesday evenings. Ivette’s bilingual ability enables her to talk to clients over the phone in Spanish and to register people who speak only Spanish at the food bank and to explain to them in their native tongue how the food bank works.
When Ivette is staffing CAC’s main phone line, she feels she is finding a solution to their needs by answering their questions. She admits it’s difficult to tell bedridden clients they have to find a way to come to the office or to inform people whose electricity has already been cut off that they have to go through a process before they may be eligible for relief. “It breaks my heart that there’s only so much that can be done,” said Ivette. “I have to be sympathetic but firm so they understand the limitations of the program.”
At the food bank, Ivette helps stock shelves before clients arrive. As clients shop, Ivette informs them how many items they can take from two frozen food cases while at the same time making sure they get what they are entitled to and what is best for their needs. She also makes suggestions on how to store or cook food. Ivette is touched by the many clients who thank her and by the tears of gratitude that occasionally well up in clients’ eyes. “This is what makes working at the food bank a rewarding experience – knowing you’ve made a real difference in someone’s life,” commented Ivette.
When clients interact with Ivette, they see and/or hear a Puerta Rican native with a big heart. What they don’t know is that she has an impressive resume.
Ivette holds a bachelor’s degree in Italian literature from Yale University in New Haven, CT. She also earned a Juris Doctorate and Master of Business Administration degree in finance from New York University in New York City. She spent a total of 29 years as an attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission and a private employer, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. Ivette just completed a five-year appointment as a commissioner on Howard County’s Human Rights Commission and is a volunteer pastoral visitor at Howard County General Hospital.
This Columbia resident is following her stellar career with meaningful volunteer work. CAC is most grateful for the four hours she has donated each week since the fall of 2014 and for her continued service to the organization.
*A CAC employee, Ivette Rosa, handles phone calls during normal business hours. Ivette Rosa also speaks Spanish.
Lenore Studt (pictured left) and Whitney LeBlanc (pictured right) are two of the 11 members of the core group of green-thumb volunteers who plan CAC’s garden. This core group decides what to plant as well as where and when to plant it. Core group members also oversee volunteers who come in groups.
Along with group volunteers, core group volunteers weed, till, plant, water, fertilize, install tomato cages, disperse wood chips, and pick pests off plants.
While working at the garden on April 12, Lenore and Whitney wore hats to shield their eyes from the sun – Lenore a small brown one and Whitney a wide-brimmed light tan hat.
Their passion for plants germinated in very different ways.
Lenore recalls that her grandmother was an avid gardener, and still delights in her childhood memories of the fragrance of blooming roses. For a long time, Lenore didn’t have much time to pursue her interest in growing plants, but as soon as Lenore got her own home and yard, she started gardening. Last year, Lenore was able to participate in the University of Maryland Extension Program to become a Master Gardener. Lenore found out about CAC’s garden through word of mouth, and it didn’t have far to travel – Lenore rents her own plot near CAC’s garden. She also volunteers at the Oella Welcome Garden in Ellicott City.
Whitney said that until about four years ago, he had “zero interest in gardening.” He was too busy with his career and family. After retiring, Whitney noticed his neighbor, Ted Pope, grew a few plants in front of his house so Whitney began asking questions about them. Ted, who is also a member of CAC’s core garden group, further cultivated Whitney’s newfound interest in plants by taking him to CAC’s plots, and a love of gardening quickly took root in Whitney. Whitney’s horticulture knowledge developed through listening to fellow gardeners and by working in the field. He grows tomatoes and acorn squash at home.
“I became fascinated with the whole process,” noted Whitney, who served as a military medic in the Army for two years and worked in the federal prison system as a physician’s assistant, warden and assistant director for 30 years. “From a seedling you get bountiful, fruitful plants. It’s incredible.”
“I like the mission of the garden,” said Lenore, who worked for a philanthropic foundation in various capacities, including as a librarian and grant manager, and served in an administrative role at Stanford University in Stanford, CA. “Volunteers who are willing to sweat and get dirty can make a difference.”
CAC is grateful to Lenore, Whitney, Ted, and all the other volunteers who wear hats – either literally or figuratively – at CAC’s garden. They are making a difference by increasing the supply of nutritious, organic produce available to low-income families who come to the Howard County Food Bank.