Renate Macchirole knew she had to do something. In her job as the director of our local Home Health Respite Care program, she kept meeting young men and women with intellectual disabilities. They were too old to be in school, but they weren’t capable of living on their own. So they lived with their parents, completely isolated from their peers.
Years earlier Renate had worked with similar young people at a facility in New York. You’ve seen some of these folks. They’re the ones that elicit double takes in public, followed by a quick turning of backs. The ones society normally keeps hidden away. But Renate has a special place for them in her heart.
“They’re still at the point in life where they have no guile,” she says. “They’re completely open to everyone and anything.” She hated the idea of them living in isolation. So she set out to start an organization that would offer them a place to go on weekdays, where they could learn simple living skills and have a chance to volunteer for good causes. To get the organization off the ground, she had to quit her job. “It wasn’t going to happen any other way.”
The organization became known as the Beach Club. I wrote about it in a blog in November. I found that when I hung around with club members for a time, I was able to see the beauty beneath their disabilities (see A Glimpse of the Spark at www.jandeblieu.com/blog).
Renate spent more than a year organizing the club, finding meeting places and seeking funding, all without receiving any pay. She knew there was a chance she might land a job running it. But there was no guarantee of that. After her meager savings ran out, she shuffled between the houses of friends. “It’s humbling to be homeless,” she says.
When the club was firmly established, the nonprofit organization Monarch agreed to fund it and hired Renate as director. She has since moved to the North Carolina nonprofit organization Benchmarks, where she’s an advocate for the workers who care for those with intellectual and mental health disabilities.
Renate was immensely fortunate to discover her calling and a way to pursue it. Was it simply luck? I don’t think so.
I’m often asked how someone can find the brand of service that will most nourish him or her. In fact, I’ve pondered the question myself. I’ve come to believe there’s only one way: We each have to stay open to possibility and be willing to make a leap of faith.
Most of the time it won’t be necessary to make major life changes, like quitting a job. Then again, it may. The only way to find out if we’re meant to do something is to try it—without holding back. This takes more than just sticking a toe in.
Whole-hearted service requires us to make personal connections with others on a regular basis. Fortunately, opportunities abound. I once knew a man who encountered hundreds of people every day and made almost every one of them smile and feel better about themselves. Was he a skilled counselor or life coach? No. He was a clerk in a convenience store. His love for others showed in everything he did.
It’s my life goal to do the same. But I’d also like to find my own brand of Seva, something that will feed others’ needs as well as my own. Writing about service is certainly part of it, and I love doing it. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling there’s more out there for me.
What could it be? I know I’m not alone in asking that question. My only guidance comes from people like Renate, who are forging the path. From them I’ve picked up a few pointers.
First, we need to be aware that service opportunities may come in unexpected forms. As we move through our lives, doors open for us. We just need to conquer our fears and walk through them.
Second, we need to cultivate openness, which means silencing the naysayer that lives within each of us: This is going to take way too much of my time. I’ll get in too deep. I’m not qualified or strong enough or smart enough to do that. It’s not possible to know just what we can do until we try it.
Finally, there’s always the chance that pursuing service wholeheartedly will require us to reorder our lives, as Renate did. The people I’ve known who have taken that leap of faith have never been sorry.
Renate certainly is not. “People told me I was crazy at age 57 to quit a salaried job with good benefits and pursue this other thing for no pay,” she remembers. “They said, ‘What about the consequences?’ But they didn’t know me, or they would have saved their breath.
“To me the only consequence—the worst possible consequence—is having something tug at your heart and not acting on it.