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Guardian Angels: Volunteering to Make an Impact

Nobody knew much about Roger. His niece had dropped him off at the nursing home one day, saying there was a family emergency. Could they keep him overnight?

Days passed, and then weeks.

Mark Desmond, Roger's volunteer guardian

Some thought that Roger's niece had been pocketing his Social Security checks, and when authorities started catching on, she bolted. Whatever the reason, she never came back.

Enter Mark Desmond, Roger's volunteer guardian. Mark, a newly retired sales manager, was determined to find out all he could about Roger, which was difficult given that he didn't say more than a few words at a time. With a little digging, Mark learned that as a young man, Roger had worked on a dairy farm in Kansas.

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Over time, Mark also discovered that Roger loved bananas. So each week before Mark would visit, he'd stop at the grocery to pick up a bunch.

"He'd have two or three right off the bat, and we'd just sit outside his room, and he'd smile," Mark remembered. "It cost 39 cents for a pound of bananas. ... It was just amazing how much enjoyment he got out of that."

Volunteering as a guardian is about honoring the little things that make life better. Before I interviewed volunteers for an adult guardianship program - part of my summer internship with an Ohio probate court - I wondered who would want this kind of responsibility. Sure, I'd volunteered as a visitor for Arthur, but I never had to make decisions about housing, prescriptions or medical procedures. Why sign on for that?

But the people I met, like Mark, said it's an incredibly meaningful way to give back. The stories they shared were moving and positive. Nearly every person told me they'd recommend this program to a friend. The time commitment - at least two in-person visits per month - is reasonable, they said, and the folks they serve often become like family. One volunteer even hangs pictures of her two individuals on the wall next to her family portraits.

But this type of volunteer work isn't for everyone. From what I learned, it takes a special mix of compassion, empathy and openness to step up to the plate and support someone whose life situation is, many times, very different from your own.

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By giving back, though, you get back. Volunteer guardians, I'd venture to say, feel the rewards of their efforts, tenfold.

When Roger's health went downhill, Mark gave the OK for hospice care. He visited Roger in the hospital four times a week, just to sit with him. At that point, he hardly spoke at all.

Each night, Mark bent over, kissed Roger's forehead and whispered, "You hang in there, OK? I'll see you tomorrow."

One night, after Mark's goodbye, Roger reached up and grabbed him around the neck. He pulled him close and said, "I love you." Roger passed away at 4:30 the next morning.

"It's something I'll never forget," Mark said."I didn't do anything that special for him, I don't think. I was just being a friend."

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