The High of Giving

By Jeanne Melino

I have been volunteering steadily over the past six years – it’s my job. This time last year, we were touring the U.S. as part of the Giving Tour. We had already been to multiple organizations, but I was unprepared for the experience I was about to have at St. Augustine Health Ministries in Cleveland, Ohio.

His name was Eddie, and the Helpers High I received that day was something I will never forget. The term Helpers High is the powerful feeling people experience when directly helping others. While historically I have always felt good after volunteering, I would never describe the feeling as high.

Alex has always had a soft spot for the elderly from her days of volunteering at the old age home in her neighborhood when she was a teenager. Me, I never liked visiting senior facilities, I always felt uncomfortable at them and really hated the smell. I know that sounds shallow, but I have a strong olfactory sense and I could never get past the odors in these facilities. So, while I was happy to be a part of the visit, I was in no way thrilled.

Upon entering, the first thing that struck me was that there was no smell, or it didn’t smell like an overabundance of cleaning products.  All I kept waiting for was that distasteful smell to jump out at any moment. It never did. But this story isn’t about the smell. It’s about Eddie…

We were brought into the recreational room to spend time with the residents. I immediately gravitated towards the Air Hockey, I’m guessing because I felt that it would give me distance and comfort knowing I wouldn’t have to get to close. Eddie, who is nonverbal and paralyzed maneuvered his wheelchair over to the other end of the table. As we started the game it became clear that the best Eddie could do was defend the puck. When the puck got stuck on his end I would get up to give it to Eddie because he was unable to move except to slide his hands. It was during these exchanges that I had to get close to Eddie.  I noticed that he had beautiful blue eyes and when I said something I would see his eyes light up. At one point his glasses were dirty, and he was motioning that he needed them cleaned. I got up and cleaned them off for him –threatening that I was going to spit on them as I had done when I used to clean my father’s glasses. He gave me a slight smile and we continued with our game; me playing offense, and Eddie still giving me his best defense. We did this for an hour, no words exchanged, but instead just the simple physical exchange of handing off the puck. The more I did this, the more I noticed how warm Eddie was and how much this game of Air Hockey was making him happy. I didn’t treat him any different than I would my daughter, I scored four times on him and whooped with joy when I did.

When the visit was over, I went to say goodbye to my new friend Eddie. He reached out, grabbed my hand tightly and kissed it. I was overwhelmed with emotion, as I realized that in just that short time hitting the puck back and forth, with no words exchanged, had meant so much to this stranger. My eyes welled up and I felt my heart burst open. This emotion stayed with me for the next few days, a feeling of pure happiness. Even as I recall this experience this amazing feeling still warms my heart.

It is moments like these that remind me why we do what we do here at the Foundation. While I don’t know what I did for Eddie that day, and it is likely that I will never see him again, I will never forget him and the gift he gave me.