Jim Ellis and Howard Goldwasser don’t know each other, but they share a private compulsion: they are serial volunteers. At the moment, they also share a common benefactor: Jewish Family Service Heldman Family Food Pantry. The men, both retired, have been independently donating their time to the food pantry in a variety of ways, whether it’s helping people shop; gathering and packing up orders; or making deliveries directly to homes. So what is it that has fueled their long-running volunteering engines—not just currently but throughout their lives? The long answer evokes thoughts of youth, happy memories of growing up in strong Jewish communities, an awareness of being fortunate in life, and an overwhelming desire to give back. The short answer is: they love it.
“When you are at a client’s door and they come out with these big smiles on their faces, it just warms your heart and makes you feel good,” said Jim. Howard shared similar sentiments, and emphasized how important that direct contact is to him. “When you have these eye-to-eye interactions, it just makes the experience feel more real and more human," Howard explained. "Donating money to an organization is fine and very important; money supports the things that are needed. But personally, I'd rather volunteer my time. It’s more face-to-face and immediate.”
Jim reflected on why this type of direct support is necessary for many of the folks he delivers to. “As many as three quarters of these individuals are older, Russian speaking Jewish immigrants who arrived in Cincinnati during the 70s and 90s,” he said. “So it really takes me back to my teen years—forty some years ago—when they first came here. I feel there’s a connection. Today, they still mostly speak Russian and listen primarily to Russian broadcasts, and if we can do anything to make their days more pleasant, we should certainly do that.”
Howard was born and raised in Indianapolis, but he too recalled the wave of immigrants from his youth, and confirmed that a unique aspect of his experience has been interacting with Cincinnati’s elderly, Russian speaking, Jewish population. “I’ve delivered to Roselawn and to Loveland, where there are a lot of Russian-speaking immigrants,” he said. “Many of these people are simply not able to get their own groceries. Others are reluctant because they’re wary of the system. So, the way I look at it, if there are people who are in need, I want to be there for them, and maybe build relationships and have an impact on their lives.”
"If you're thinking about volunteering, give it a try. If you do this once or twice, you'll be hooked. It's just a great way to be out in the community, helping people that truly need it."
As to precisely how or when he became a serial volunteer, Howard suggested he couldn’t remember a turning point; he had always been this way—adding that his parents and his upbringing were important influences. “I've volunteered most of my life,” he asserted. “I'm a social worker by trade, so I've always been interested in volunteering and giving back wherever I can. I've always liked helping people and—when I retired—it was just a natural thing for me to volunteer, whether at the JFS food pantry or other, similar opportunities.”
Like Howard, Jim says his parents, and his roots, were a big influence on him. “I've always been active in the community,” he said. “The values I was taught and brought up around were: we give back,” he said. “We were more fortunate than a lot of folks. We’re still fortunate; we live comfortable lives. But we can't do that if we don't pay attention to what's going on around us. And then, act accordingly, which means giving back and helping when you can. I would say that’s a pretty basic, core Jewish value, but really I think that's also a human value.”
Jim has received as much as he’s given, however, so he frequently wonders who is really helping whom. “One of the gentlemen I deliver to is a younger middle-aged man who had a stroke within the last two years,” Jim shared. “He can’t carry up a bag of groceries up to his second-floor apartment. He is just this lovely, wonderful person who happens to be in a really tough spot, and I enjoy seeing him every month. I'm just amazed at people who are able to persevere to overcome such hardship. Sometimes, I wonder whether I would ever have such a positive outlook.”
When asked how they would encourage others who were curious about getting involved, both men recommended a “try-it-and-see” approach. “Go for it. It's fun!” Howard insisted. “It’s not hard work. And all of the people I’ve met are interesting—the clients, the other volunteers, and the people who work at the Heldman Family Food Pantry.” Jim simply said, “If you're thinking about volunteering, give it a try. If you do this once or twice, you'll be hooked. It's just a great way to be out in the community, helping people that truly need it.”
If you would like more information on becoming a volunteer at the Heldman Family Food Pantry, please contact Beth Kotzin at 513-766-3322.