In honor of National Volunteer Week, April 7-13, United Way of Northeast Florida is highlighting volunteers from the community nominated by the organizations they serve.
Brigitte Wagner is a volunteer for Hart Felt Ministries, an organization that utilizes a network of community volunteers to demonstrate love and provide, at no charge, non-medical services that build relationships, enhance environments, and preserve the independence of frail seniors. Brigitte has been a companion for two Hart Felt clients since becoming a volunteer in December 2016 and has since donated approximately 150 service hours. Her first client, Ms. Barbara, passed away about a month after their first visit. Brigitte immediately opened her heart to serving another client, Ms. Pat. Little did she know at the time that visiting with Ms. Pat would have a profound impact on her life.
Here’s what Brigitte had to say about her volunteer experience.
I think the most rewarding feeling about volunteering is love; to be able to build a relationship with someone, learn about their life, their joys, their sorrows and pains, sharing some of your own along the way out of love, allows an intimate bond to develop and creates such a deep sense of purpose that is hard to explain.
By taking two perfect strangers, bringing them together out of happenstance, or perhaps divine intervention, and truly getting to know one another without preconceived notions or expectations, you become friends and each other’s confidant, which allows a deep sense of love to grow in ways that I never knew were possible.
After having gone through some trials in my life, as we all do, I found myself wandering and feeling quite lost. Someone came into my life during that period who was not a direct connection to me getting involved, but piqued my interest in learning more about God and lead me to Beach Church. The more I went, I became more curious and intrigued by “what’s my purpose in life?” One Sunday, Beach brought in several local organizations for folks to consider serving. As my faith started growing, I realized I had a heart for the senior citizens in our community, which honestly, started out partially from the guilt of not being able to spend the time I felt “I should have” with my mom the last several years of her life. She suffered from Parkinson’s dementia and went from her home, to assisted living, to full-time care within less than a year here in Florida and I lived in New Jersey at the time. Hartfelt’s mission spoke to my heart and I knew it was what I needed and wanted to do for others who had a limited or no support system.
Gosh, there have been several events, but Ms. Pat had to be the icing on the cake! She came into my life as I was diving deeper into my faith exploration and there is no doubt in my mind that this was no accident. Pat was not a “religious” person as she didn’t really prescribe to an organized religion. She was however, the most faith filled person and servant of God that I’d ever come across in my life — so far. We were both a little hesitant about our paring at first, me “the nice lady who came from a ‘comfortable’” background and Pat, the “seriously religious lady that lived and breathed scripture” (my initial impression). “How could we possibly have anything in common,” Pat’s words, not mine lol.
Within a matter of the first month, neither of us could explain how, but we developed an incredible bond that just continued to grow. We shared things about our lives with each other that till this day I still chuckle about because we went very deep on all levels — no holds barred! Last January, she had taken ill with pneumonia and honestly, should have passed at that point. She had a do not resuscitate (DNR) sign in her room and a DNR at the hospital — they were both ignored. She came back home a few weeks later and was quite upset that she wasn’t able to “go home to God” and didn’t understand why she couldn’t have gone at that time. We spoke about it at length and both of us came to the conclusion that I still needed her in my life to help me continue on my faith journey. I still and will always believe that. So many things in our relationship came down to impeccable timing and I was blessed to be able to help her make her final journey to California to spend her last days with family. She passed after being there only three weeks, but it’s exactly how she wanted it; with her family, no pain, no suffering. How could God not have had his hand in that?
Next up for me is a slightly different direction. My next “calling” for lack of a better term is to hopefully get involved with a new project being taken on by my church called “True North.” It’s a mental health initiative and its mission is “to alleviate the suffering of mental illness in the beaches area and beyond through faith communities.” The strategy consists of three parts, namely advocacy which aims to empower the faith community to normalize the conversations around mental illness through information, tools and relationship building among clergy and faith communities; referral – True North will create a call center where people are referred to care and resources; and lastly but certainly not least, education and the goal is to create an educational center for people who are impacted by mental illness. Seminars, training and communication will be the main means of education. This means a lot to me as I’ve seen first hand the lack of available resources in our community and the overwhelming presence of those who need help.
First and foremost, be open to trying different volunteer opportunities to find the right fit. Not everything is for everyone. I’ve found that once I find the right fit, it’s not subtle at all. It’s a constant tug at my heart that points me in that direction. Secondly, don’t be afraid to be real. Be yourself, open up your mind and let go of any preconceived notions. You’ll likely be very surprised at the outcome. And perhaps most importantly, don’t be afraid to show love and caring. It’s OK to be vulnerable and cry or to be silly and excited. We’ve all got a range of emotions and to be able to experience them in this type of environment allows you to open up avenues in your everyday life that you didn’t see before. It’s amazing how your perspective changes when you put someone else’s needs ahead of your own. Lastly, always, always, always be humble and thankful that you are able to serve. Keep in mind that at any time your circumstances can change and you might be on the receiving end instead of the giving end. And that’s OK, too.
Brigitte’s volunteer story illustrates the power of one individual to make a difference in the world. Brigitte didn’t serve thousands of people but she invested in one person, making an immeasurable impact on a senior in her community. You,too, can join Brigitte in the fight for community changing by becoming a volunteer. To learn more, visit unitedwaynefl.org/volunteer.