Never fear the chance to be a volunteer

Years ago, while attending graduate school at Columbia University Teachers College, I was unsure about which area of special education to pursue.

It seemed the only way to decide with any integrity was to spend time with the people who made up these special populations. As an undergraduate, I volunteered at a home for individuals with orthopedic handicaps. My assignment was to work with an older adult who had severe Cerebral Palsy. He was a writer, and in those days of manual typewriters, he could not reach the keys without support. He was extremely frustrated and lamented how lonely he was having a sharp mind whose body could not cooperate. Other positions included volunteering at a center for delinquent teenagers, tutoring the learning disabled, and working with acting-out children. I found my niche in counseling.

There was a highly regarded program in White Plains called the Center for Preventive Psychology. One focus of the center was helping bereaved children through the process of mourning lost loved ones. Understanding how useful the children’s therapy was opened my eyes to the benefits of preventive psychology. Several months later I began to volunteer at Bellevue Hospital. This hospital setting was amazing meeting a vast universe of needs. Bellevue Hospital Center, founded in 1736, is the oldest public hospital in the United States and has been the site of countless milestones in the history of medicine.

My work was with non-verbal autistic preschool children, on the same floor as an elementary school for children with emotional handicaps and an inpatient facility for the very young children, some of whom were living at the hospital because their was no foster placement available. The clinical staff was extraordinary, and I often had the opportunity to sit in on case conferences and detailed procedures.

Our particular assignment was trying to teach sign language to non-verbal autistic children. The process was laborious and came with inconsistent results. As part of the program, I watched how non-traditional arts therapists used music to engage the children with sounds and rhythms that they loved. This was the first time that I had seen how complementary and beneficial arts in therapy could be.

When not volunteering, I was able to visit other programs including an outpatient nursery school for children with language delays and severe attention deficits. Most memorable was going to oncology ward where children and adolescents were treated. Many of their conditions were extremely serious, and attempts were made to create as comfortable an environment as possible. The walls were hung with children’s pictures, poetry and stories describing their illnesses and treatments.

The pediatric intensive care unit was also on the same floor. Little tiny babies were placed in cribs, perhaps hooked onto oxygen or other elaborate paraphernalia. This was a very difficult place, as parents who so wanted a child could not bring their baby home, and might never have that opportunity. One parentless infant was found abandoned hours after birth in a trash bin. Now her life depended on oxygen and the Angel of Bellevue. She was an older African American woman, frail, with the most beatific gaze. She took the babies, some severely deformed, and loved them. The angel had a rocking chair and in her arms nested a little one, giving the baby dignity and the love it deserved. Her fearlessness helped the parents through this most heartbreaking situation. In my mind’s eye, this was close to Heaven.

Fast-forward to today, as the years have gone by, I recognize that my time has been spent with satisfying work, loving friends, and pursuing interests such as Yoga. With the passing of time have come the inevitable losses, of family, friends, and sadly, too, some of whom have been my students. I realize that during the course of a lifetime, most of us will, in some way, serve family or friends in the capacity of caretakers.

Several years ago, I begin reading about the Urban Zen Foundation, an organization whose mission is to raise awareness and inspire change, empower children, and preserve cultures ( The founders and inspiration behind this wide-ranging venture are the highly respected designers Donna Karan and Sonja Nuttall. Each of these wise women does not rest on her considerable laurels, but rather actively seek to address serious medical and societal problems with well-documented and holistic solutions.

One catalyst to the founding of Urban Zen was when Donna Karan lost her husband Stephan Weiss to cancer in 2001. His passing, along with prior experiences caring for her mother gave her a determination to integrate the most advanced science of the western medicine with the ancient tested practices of the east. After extensive consultation with the medical establishment and holistic practitioners and a two-year pilot program, a curriculum to train Integrative therapists was launched with a start date early in 2009.

Last October, the New York Times (Oct. 30, 2008) published an article describing collaboration between Beth Israel Hospital Division of Medical Oncology and Urban Zen, to enhance the care of hospitalized cancer patients. . Reading the article, along with other information about Urban Zen, fired in me a desire to get involved. I applied to become part of the program and one week later, I received notification of acceptance. It brought back memories from those long ago times at Bellevue Hospital and anticipation of becoming part of this extraordinary opportunity.

In hospitals and other health care settings, creating an atmosphere that takes patient, families, and health care workers’ experiences into consideration has been sorely missing from our current paradigms. Urban Zen Integrative therapists will provide supportive care by incorporating Yoga therapy, space for meditation, counsel on death and dying and other integrative modalities. This support is given without denying the importance of the most up-to-date medical advances. Such complementary practices have gained support and many medical professionals endorse integrative modalities.

I am honored having been selected as one in the first class of Urban Zen practitioners and over the months, it is my hope to share my progress through this Parenting Pearls column. As I have shared, volunteering has been one of the mainstays and most rewarding aspects of my life, as valuable as years spent in a classroom. Do not be afraid of becoming a volunteer even if you have never spent time at a hospital, homeless shelter, prison, or the many other rewarding opportunities. Reaching out to one another to bolster and encourage is a sure antidote to hard times in the days ahead.