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Secret pals bring big smiles to seniors

If you’re anything like me, every now and again you’ll feel a yearning inside, wishing you could find some time in your life for volunteering.

I know my heart is in the right place, but between the responsibilities I have to my family and my career, my brain tells me that I could not possibly take on another thing. I pacify myself with the thought, “When I retire….”

It happened to me again over spring break. My family was off doing their own things with friends, and I found myself thinking that maybe I do have the time now to get involved. I sat down with a cup of coffee and my laptop and before long I stumbled upon the web site givingdupage.org. Suddenly I had hundreds of volunteer opportunities in front of me; they were sorted by cause (animals, environment, children, etc), each featuring complete details about the organization, the types of volunteer work they have available, and how much time is required from the volunteer.

It didn’t take much time for me to find a cause that really touched my heart. The program was called Secret Pal, and it requires very little from the volunteer. According to the web site, the volunteer simply donates “special, small gifts on a monthly basis to put a little extra joy in the life of a struggling senior.”

I found this cause to be so sweet, the “reporter” in me just had to find out more. Before long, I was in contact with Karole Kettering, founder of Humanitarian Service Project.

Humanitarian Service Project was founded in 1979. “It originally started helping 35 families that were in need and I ran it out of my spare bedroom,” said Kettering.

HSP now operates out of a 15,000-sq. ft. facility in Carol Stream and provides food and basic necessities to hundreds of children and seniors living in DuPage and Kane counties. The Senior Project delivers about 90 lbs. of groceries every month to 120 seniors in need. An offshoot of the Senior Project is the Secret Pal program.

“Volunteers are assigned to a specific senior and are then provided with a wish list of things that a senior either needs or wants,” explains Kettering. “Secret pals provide anything from a daily necessity like laundry detergent, to something a little bit more personal like a new mystery thriller or new yarn.” The volunteers drop off the Secret Pal gifts at the Carol Stream facility; the gifts are given to the seniors when the volunteer HSP driver delivers the groceries.

Carol Paulsen of Lombard began volunteering for the Secret Pal program in January after she was inspired by a sweet memory of her mother. “I remember when my mom was alive and just the smallest act of kindness brought her such joy and happiness. I wanted to bring that joy to others that meant so much to her.”

Paulsen was assigned to a senior who likes to paint. “She is new to the program, so she does not have a wish list yet. So, I bought her some paint tablets and note cards.”

Lombard resident Marylou Johnson became involved with the Secret Pal program seven years ago when she was looking for a volunteer opportunity to do with her granddaughter. Johnson selected this program because, “it would help a lot, but yet it would not be an overwhelming commitment since it was just once a month.”

Johnson enjoys putting “theme” gifts together every month for her Secret Pal. “It’s gratifying to know that you can put a smile on someone’s face or make their day with so very little effort.”

Another Lombard resident Jessica Schultz got involved when she learned about the program through her company’s volunteer network. “It gives me great satisfaction knowing that I can make a local senior smile,” said Schultz, who recently gave her Secret Pal a package of puzzle books. “I would recommend this cause to other volunteers, because it’s a very easy way to make a huge difference in a local senior’s life.”

If you would like to become a Secret Pal to a senior in need, be sure to check out the HSP web site: humanitarianservice.org.

As for me, the Secret Pal project seems like the perfect volunteer opportunity. I love everything about gifts—shopping, wrapping, giving—however, I have a feeling that I will be the one receiving more joy, knowing that I made a difference in someone’s day.

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