Life after Cancer – Volunteering

Empowerment - Woman with Outstretched Arms Standing on Mountaintop with Clouds at Sunset

Hearing the words “You have invasive breast cancer.” changed my life forever. I remember little from that first conversation except asking my doctor, “Am I going to die?”

Dealing with cancer or a devastating loss—like losing a loved one or suddenly finding yourself out of job—is traumatic; it derails your life. You are no longer in control. The illness or loss takes precedence and everything else fades into the background. However, at some point you must get your life back on track.

Volunteering helped me take back my life. It made me feel empowered and gave me the impetus I needed to take up my post-cancer life. Today, I am grateful to be alive and able to share my story with you in hopes that it may help you if you are struggling to take back your life after suffering a terrible illness or personal loss.

Losing Control of My Life

As a person used to managing my own schedule and making my own decisions, I was shocked at how quickly I completely lost control over my life.

Medical receptionists were in charge of my daily schedule. They told me when and where to show up for doctor visits, diagnostic procedures, infusions (chemotherapy), surgery, and radiation treatments. Trying to make plans around medical appointments was futile because I never knew how I would be feeling tomorrow, let alone next week.

My own body had seemingly turned against me by getting cancer in the first place. Now it was determining which side effects I would have, what I could or could not eat, and how far I could walk on any given day. My routine of walking an hour a day did not last long as chemotherapy sapped my energy. Walking for 5 or 10 minutes or taking a shower became a major accomplishment.

Being a cancer patient affected my state of mind. I felt like I was on a runaway train going to an unknown destination with danger lurking around every bend. Fear, self-pity, and anger were my constant companions. My world shrank. Making it through the day became my mission. I could not believe this was my life. Unfortunately, it was.

After a horrific yearlong journey, I was cancer free. Rejoicing to be alive, I thought, “Now I can get back to my life!” The hard part was figuring out how to get started.

Taking Back My Life through Volunteering

My work, this website and blog, beckoned, but I was feeling overwhelmed by the thought of trying to pick up where I had left off. I thrashed about trying to get my footing. Then, on a February evening during a meeting in my living room, a solution presented itself.

The meeting was for Ecologistics, an environmental and social justice not-for-profit organization. Ecologistics brings people together to learn, share ideas, and take action to ensure that life on Earth can continue for people and all other living creatures.

I saw a chance to deploy my business and project management skills in service of this organization and volunteered to fulfill two Board of Director positions: Secretary and Treasurer.

Soon I was knee deep in preparing meeting minutes, analyzing financial documents, and learning QuickBooks. I took on banking, writing the e-newsletter, and managing the development of our new website. Instead of worrying about things like, “When will my hair grow back?” or, “I wonder if I will be able to hike up a mountain again?” I found myself thinking about how to streamline and tighten up our financial processes or tracking web site development tasks to make sure we could make our go-live date.

Volunteering is Empowering

My efforts directly contributed to timely and accurate meeting minutes, smooth-running financial processes, a $1,000 grant award, an updated e-newsletter format, and a new website. Though I did not do this all by myself, Ecologistics has benefited from my work.

I received an unexpected benefit myself. By using my skills and experience in service of an organization aligned with my beliefs, volunteering gave me a feeling of empowerment.

After spending several months with the pedal to the metal working for Ecologistics, I slowly realized that I was already well on the way to taking back my life and adapting to life after cancer. I am ready to push the restart button on Green Groundswell and continue my mission of convincing other unlikely environmentalists like me to live more gently on the Earth and keep it habitable for all.

Volunteering Can Help You Too

For those of you struggling to get your life back on track, consider volunteering. There are thousands of not-for-profit organizations and community groups doing good things. They need your passion, talents, and knowledge.

Everyone has something to offer. Can you bake delicious chocolate chip cookies? Drop off a batch for a group of activists spending all day Saturday in a planning meeting. Are you a whiz at Excel spreadsheets? Help an organization create and track a budget for the first time. Do you enjoy meeting and talking to new people? Sign up to staff a booth or table at an event. Are you good at speaking in front of a large group of people? Offer to emcee an event or give a presentation for a group you admire. Do you have a green thumb? Volunteer at a community garden.

Pick a cause you care about and volunteer to do something. Through helping others you can help yourself, too.

Inspire other people by sharing your own volunteering empowerment story.

Christmas Gift Giving – Toys for Tots

Original Toys for Tots Poster - 1948
Original Toys for Tots Poster – 1948

This year spread the Christmas spirit by donating a new toy to Toys for Tots. Make it a green gift by giving a toy dump truck made from recycled plastic, a nature-inspired book like The Lorax, or a selection of seed packets and child-size gardening tools.

My spouse and I had been donating gifts to Toys for Tots periodically through the years, but that changed when we moved to a small town on California’s central coast in 2007.

During our first holiday season here, seeing Toys for Tots donation boxes in the local stores reminded us to include less fortunate children in our Christmas shopping and inspired us to make giving to Toys for Tots an annual tradition.

A few weeks ago, after a UPS box arrived containing a GoldieBlox building set my spouse had bought for Toys for Tots, I decided to find out more about Toys for Tots and share what I learned.

What is Toys for Tots?

The Toys for Tots mission is simple, to deliver a message of hope and bring a smile to a child’s face with a new toy at Christmastime.

Each year during October, November, and December, U.S. Marine Corps reservists and local volunteers coordinate Toys for Tots programs in their communities. Toys for Tots donation boxes pop up at fire stations, churches, schools, libraries, and stores in hundreds of towns and cities across the country. People in the community donate new unwrapped toys.

Former Marine Harry Smith with Toys for Tots Collection Boxes and Toys - Photo: Pat van den Beemt
Former Marine Harry Smith began volunteering with Toys for Tots during its first year in 1947 – Photo: Pat van den Beemt

Toys for Tots coordinators working with social service agencies, schools, and other groups identify children eligible to receive toys and manage collecting, sorting, and distributing the toys to parents and guardians of children within the community in which they were donated.

Toys for Tots History

In 1947, Mrs. Diane Hendricks asked a favor of her husband William L. Hendricks, which led to founding Toys for Tots.

As the story goes, Mrs. Hendricks requested Mr. Hendricks, a Warner Brothers Studio executive and major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, to use his contacts to coordinate collecting and distributing toys to less fortunate children in Los Angles at Christmastime. Mr. Hendricks and a group of local U.S. Marine Corps reservists collected and distributed 5,000 new and used toys that first year!

Apparently, Mr. Hendricks was a persuasive person because, in 1948, the U.S Marine Corps adopted Toys for Tots as an official activity and expanded it by having Marines at Reserve Centers across the country coordinate local toy drives. He also roped celebrities into endorsing the program and convinced Walt Disney to design a logo, the now famous red train.

Toys for Tots Train Logo

Over the next several decades, toy donations to Toys for Tots continued to grow and professional athletes, United States First Ladies, and corporate sponsors joined entertainment celebrities in promoting the program and spreading the word.

Initially, both new and used toys were accepted by Toys for Tots. For over 30 years, Marine reservists refurbished used toys during October and November drill weekends, but it was a time-consuming activity. In 1980, Toys for Tots adopted a new toy only policy.

The nonprofit Marine Toys for Tots Foundation was founded in 1991 to perform fundraising activities, supplement local toy collection efforts, and for legal and tax purposes.

In 1995, then U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry approved Toys for Tots as an official mission of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. The next year, Toys for Tots expanded to all 50 states by authorizing Marine veterans or community representatives to coordinate Toys for Tots campaigns in communities without Marine Reserve Centers.

Now in its 68th year, Toys for Tots is running strong having collected over 469 million toys and distributing them to over 216 million children!

Toys for Tots in Our Community

Each year, over 250 children in our community receive toys from Toys for Tots due to the efforts of a dedicated group of volunteers.

The Lorax Book CoverIn our small town, the local American Legion post sponsors Toys for Tots assisted by various community volunteer organizations. A family advocate from the school system conducts the main outreach activity by contacting parents and guardians of children eligible for the free school lunch program. Interested parents provide the names, ages, and genders of their children.

In mid-December, volunteers collect the donation boxes and deliver them to our local Veterans Hall where volunteers sort the toys by age and gender. Depending on how many toys are donated, the volunteers select one or more toys for each child and place them in bags. Parents and guardians pick up the toys on a specific day.

Buying a toy and placing it in a Toys for Tots collection box is easy when you compare it to what the Marines and other volunteers do. Let’s fill up Toys for Tots donation boxes and spread the Christmas spirit to children all across the country.

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