Everyday Volunteerism with Sarah Rowe

Photo by Sarah Rowe

Think about things you notice that seem to be invisible to everyone else. Something as simple as a honeybee on a flower. Or as chance as a shooting star. Or as glaring as the number of MacBooks in a café. But then you remember the documentary you saw on the declining honeybee population. Oh, and the factoid you learned about being able to see a shooting star every 10 to 15 minutes while stargazing. Ah yes, and that you’ve been looking into buying a MacBook for the past month. It’s the things we preoccupy our minds with that suddenly go from being our world’s white noise to taking center stage.

For Sarah Rowe, the thing on the forefront of her mind, the thing she habitually recognizes everywhere she looks, is people helping others. It’s because Sarah, herself, is a chronic volunteer, always looking for opportunities and finding ways she can be involved. She says she definitely gets it from her mother. “Being a Depression person, she always has her eye out and really notices people who are struggling. She once took it to the point where people would move in with us for a period of time.”

Sarah’s mom, Leni Rowe, told stories to her kids about when she was growing up during the Great Depression in Brooklyn, New York. Leni’s parents were fortunate to have a stable income, and when times were tough, they were able to feed people who came to the back door of their home. Both Sarah’s parents were careful with their money, but generous in their donations of time and talent.

Photograph by Diane Welsh

Seeing the impact her parents were having on the lives of others surely played a part in Sarah’s decision to pursue a career as a nurse practitioner for Access Community Health Centers in 1996. But this didn’t completely satisfy her desire to help the community. In fact, her work at the clinic only fuels her need to get involved in her community when she’s off the clock.

Sarah remembers when she saw a Wisconsin State Journal ad for a volunteer to teach a Friday fresh-food cooking class at the McFarland Youth Center. She thought, “I can do that, I have Friday afternoons off. So I showed up there, and I had a lot of really ambitious plans. I’m like, okay, we’re going to get wild foods. I’m going to teach them how to make pesto out of garlic mustard. I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that. No, no, no.” The reality: some of the kids didn’t know the basics, like the fact that cherry tomatoes grow on vines. So she started from square one. Now there’s a community garden, and a lot of kids are learning some really cool things about agriculture on a scale they can appreciate.

Photograph by Xana Rowe

Something else volunteering at the Youth Center provided Sarah was the opportunity to work with kids who were sometimes eating their first meal of the day. But these experiences didn’t just give her reason to reflect on her good fortune in life, they also served as a source for inspiration. One girl’s mom, a single parent, is what Sarah calls a “super-dedicated volunteer.” This mom is on the list of people who can take food home because of her financial situation. “She was volunteering all the time. And it cuts both ways. People want an opportunity to contribute.”

In a sense, it’s really easy to find something you’re passionate about, whether it’s local schools, gardening, or recycling, and turn it into a chance to volunteer. But if you’re like me, finding the time is often the inhibitor. Though Sarah seems fluent in her ability to sense volunteer opportunities, she has developed a foolproof way to actively contribute to her community. Sarah’s conviction in the importance of recycling, energized her and a friend to start Mitten Palooza: a group focused on creating mittens and other apparel from recycled clothing often found at the St. Vincent de Paul Dig & Save.

The inspiration goes back to an old knit wool coat Sarah’s grandpa had given Leni in the ‘70s. “It was the last thing he gave her before he died.” Leni couldn’t part with it, but the garment still had some life left in it. Sarah thought, “If I could turn it into something else that you really liked, that you needed, that you could use.” Then she took out her sewing machine, which hadn’t been touched in 25 years and, “through the magic of YouTube,” began upcycling. She turned the wool coat into a set of mittens, and decided to keep the momentum going.

Photograph by Kathy Pakes

Upcycled mitten production could be a good way to earn some extra income, but Sarah instead works hard to determine where the proceeds are best donated. “There’s a lot of things I could be doing, and maybe I can’t affect large things, but I can affect small things. Like my $500 contribution is a big deal for the Youth Center. Maybe it wouldn’t be for some other organization, but it’s a big deal for them.”

Finding your niche, giving back, Sarah says, “All these things are a mindset that you can develop if you care to and if you’re interested in it.” As much as I tried to make this article a window into Sarah’s life, I find it also operates as a manual on how to volunteer. But maybe that’s because it speaks to who Sarah is and what she wants to inspire in others.

Which brings me back to Leni, now 90 years old. “She’s no longer serving at Luke House, but she’s still making the sloppy joe mix.” There are so many little things we can do that instantly improve someone’s day or make a community event a success. “I have a whole different way of looking at things since I started doing Mitten Palooza because I’m always looking for an opportunity now. I like to stay busy, and it’s kind of fun for me. It makes me more cheerful, just like my dog. My dog makes me cheerful, and this does too.”

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie.