“A gift without a giver is like a love without a lover; it’s like honey without the hive, it’s like the sun without the sky…I’d rather have the giver, for the gifts they come along; I’d rather have the composer, for in him lies the song.” –The Winans
During the recent Team Tennessee Service Day held here in Memphis, thanks to a collaborative effort between Volunteer Memphis and Volunteer Tennessee, it was clear to me that the sources of joy at each recipient site were not the gifts but the givers. Sure, the playground at the Orange Mound Community Services Center was spruced up and the community garden there was beautified and fertilized with donated soil, mulch and materials. Yes, many gift shop items were labeled and items archived at the National Civil Rights Museum by volunteers from around the state. But as the giving took place we learned about our givers and it was in listening to their stories where I most understood what it meant to be of service.
At the Orange Mound Community Services Center, college students from Knoxville and Nashville carefully cleaned around the sunflowers, tomatoes, cucumbers, rosemary, greens, and various herbs planted in garden beds as Mr. Preston, overseer of the community garden, looked on. In between offering direction on where to place mulch and soil, what to pull and what to let stand, Mr. Preston talked about the years he spent growing up on a sharecropper’s farm in Moscow, Tennessee. It was there he learned about work ethic and patience, watching his parents spend long days toiling on the land without any guarantee that the resulting harvest would fully compensate for the amount of labor put forth. He also learned about fairness, or lack thereof, which is what ultimately prompted his family’s move to the city of Memphis. Many years later he now volunteers at Orange Mound’s Senior Center, sharing his farming expertise and providing fresh produce to area residents. The produce is free to anyone who wants it; Mr. Preston sees this as fair.
Sitting next to each other in Hooks Hyde Hall at the National Civil Rights Museum, a mother and daughter open bulk-packaged items and label them for the museum’s gift shop. Their work here will last only for the day but their volunteerism continues all year round. They are both part of Porter-Leath’s Foster Grandparent program, going into classrooms to provide teachers with support in areas such as tutoring, mentoring and helping young children who need emotional support and/or extra care due to physical disabilities. They assist with word problems and they give hugs; they aid in writing assignments and they soothe crying toddlers. For this mother-daughter duo, their philanthropy with Senior Corps and Porter-Leath began when daughter Bea Anderson saw a billboard asking its readers to “Be A Hero.” Anderson said she wasn’t drawn to the idea of being a hero but to the idea that there were children who needed more in their lives: more love, more help, more hugs. She signed up first, followed soon thereafter by her mother Mary Van Pelt. And this wasn’t the first time Anderson signed up for something because her heart led her to.
“My mother didn’t understand it at first; she does now,” Anderson explains as she describes the series of events which resulted in her early retirement from FedEx. When she arrived at the hospital to pick up her daughter, whom she was adopting, the nurses took her to the wing where babies born to drug-addicted mothers were being taken care of. “We want you to see and know what you’re getting yourself into,” they told her. She walked out of the hospital that day with her daughter, now seven, and never looked back. A couple of years ago Anderson decided to retire early from a great career because the desire to spend more time with her daughter was greater. Again, she never looked back.
This year’s Service Day was filled with gifts of labor: hundreds of volunteers cleaning, packing, digging, driving and assembling. It was also filled with conversations that gave us a glimpse into the lives of our givers who have worked tirelessly in the face of unpredictable harvests and who decided to make leaps of faith even when it was subtly suggested that they err on the side of caution. Because of these givers our city will always be inundated with gifts; because they are the composers, Memphis will always be a starting ground for beautifully orchestrated songs.