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Volunteering with Leah Sottile 

by Leah Sottile & r & At the stroke of 11, everyone shot out of their seats -- some grabbing walkers, others clutching tattered dolls, the rest shuffling into a wobbly single-filed line. I sat wide-eyed, wondering what the hell was going on, why I was the only one failing to hear this silent alarm that was drawing even the hearing-impaired people out of their seats.

I looked toward the end of the table toward Terry desperately, a question mark splashed across my face.

"Exercise time," she said.

It was as if they were all programmed. The line slowly filed out of the classroom, weaved down the hall, outside the double doors, inside, around the cafeteria tables and through the back hallway. Maralyn sets the pace at the front, her walker clicking along the tile floor as she leads the line like the self-appointed drum major. Everyone follows, smiling as they walk, chatting, stopping every now and then to peer in the other classrooms before being repositioned in the line again. I stick to the middle.

On our second loop around, the woman behind me put her hand on my shoulder. Her eyes were wide, and she held a Strawberry Shortcake doll so tightly around its neck that her knuckles quivered.

"I'm crying," she proclaimed.

It's in these moments -- ones I've experienced a few times before -- when you actually know why you're volunteering. These are the times when unknown motherly instincts surface, when you'll do any thing to help, when you realize just how selfless you can be.

It's in these rare moments that you truly know that a good person lies inside of you.

As I looked at this woman, twice my age and clearly on the verge of tears, I realized I was already reacting.

"You're crying?" I said, smiling, hoping that she believed that I knew what I was doing. "Don't cry. We're having fun, right?"

Just like that, she nodded, eased up on Shortcake's jugular, smiled and rejoined the weaving, staggered line. She forgot all about those tears, and I think it's because she knew that I cared. At least I hope so.

Those are 10 typical minutes at Center Pointe, a day center located just north of downtown Spokane dedicated to serving people with mental and physical disabilities. Center Pointe sees a little bit of everything, and a whole lot of everyone. Some people are hard of hearing or can't speak. Some have severe mental disabilities. Some seem like they shouldn't even be there.

But that's the thing: Everyone who's there should be there. It's a way for them to make friends, to feel the warmth of a community, to feel safe, to learn, to grow -- to be empowered. It's a part of life-- just as it is for most of us to go to work or to school, to drink our morning coffee or walk our dogs before bed. It's not too odd for the frequent visitors to say, "I'm going to school today," or "I'm going to work" on the way to Center Pointe. Just as you and I have our jobs and homes, they have this community. Volunteers are the foundation that make it rock-solid.

As I learned quickly, much of volunteering at Center Pointe is about simply being there. Permanent volunteers and staff members teach reading and math classes for more advanced participants. When the volunteers are available, ceramics and woodshop classes are available to enhance participants' enjoyment and learning. But more than what they can teach, volunteers are appreciated for just sitting and talking with the folks who come there.

Lunchtime happens shortly after exercise time, which happens somewhere between classroom time and bingo time. Everyone seems to know the schedule here. When lunchtime is declared right after 11:30 am, everyone hops up to collect their lunches -- some in prepacked nylon lunch pails with an icepack inside, others haphazardly stuffed in backpacks.

I'm instructed simply to walk around and see who needs help with their lunches. Jell-O pudding packs are more like Rubik's Cubes when you've got short fingers, and juice boxes can be impossible to figure out. I help where I can -- opening bags and cans, throwing away a moldy pudding when I find one and make sure everyone is eating. Then I take a seat at the first open seat I can find -- hoping I'll be included faster than I was in my junior high school cafeteria.

I sit down next to Barb, who turns out to be one of few participants who acts as her own guardian. We chat about her favorite days to come to Center Pointe (dance days and bingo days). Matt and Jody join us; Matt tows a green bucket beside his automatic wheelchair, and Jody hoists a large plastic bag onto the table. Matt's bucket is filled with crushed cans -- Coke, apple juice, Welch's Grape. Jody's bag is filled with hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of tabs off of soda and juice cans. As the lunch hour finishes, those who are hip to the jive at Center Pointe make their way over to our table. Cans are plunked beside Matt -- who smashes them between his palms; Jody, who says little more than "yeah," points to his open bag of tabs. People walk by to add theirs to the mix. Just like during exercise time, even those people who seem not to know what is happening around them walk by to donate their can or tab.

Matt slyly collects a few tabs on the side in an empty medicine bottle.

We sit and chat as they finish their sandwiches and microwave meals. What do I do? Where do I live? Where do they live? Why are they here? More lunchers drop by, smack down a can or deposit a tab. The conversation continues.

Before long, I can't help but ask -- why are they collecting cans and tabs? They donate them, one volunteer tells me. Jody and Matt collect as many tabs and cans as they can, then donate them to the Ronald McDonald House. Then they're sold to Spokane Recycling, and Ronald McDonald House then uses the cash to upgrade their facility. Last time they went in, she tells me, Jody donated more than 500 cans and tabs.

I look at Jody, who nods, just says, "yeah" and goes back to his mac 'n' cheese.

It was another one of those moments.

I looked around. Chantal was being steered back to her table after wandering off. Darrin was eyeing his picture -- macaroni glued to paper -- proudly. Caleb was struggling to spoon some leftover casserole into his mouth, laughing along the way. Matt struggles with his spina bifida. All of these people struggle in ways that I don't -- yet above it all, they're still able to take the time to think of someone else. It's the kind of thing that makes you stop, shake your head and remember just how unique volunteering moments can be.

Center Pointe is located at 1408 N. Washington St. To volunteer, call 325-5451.

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