When Charlene Press retired in 1998, it wasn’t because she wanted to.
She loved the staff, volunteers and residents she interacted with daily at Menorah Park, but when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that causes an abnormal response in the body’s immune system against the central nervous system, she soon realized that working in the traditional sense was not a viable option.
To fill her days with purpose and meaning, Press turned to volunteering – giving back to two organizations that greatly impacted her life before and after her diagnosis – Menorah Park and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Ohio Buckeye chapter.
When at Menorah Park, the Solon resident lends her time to the gift shop and used to volunteer at its on-site FUNdamentals Child Care Center. For the MS Society, Press said while she used to be more involved in pre-COVID-19 pandemic times, she is still a co-leader of a self-help and advocacy group. As the original co-leader of this initiative, she started the group 25 years ago.
CJN: Why did you decide volunteering was the right route for you?
Press: I retired too early because of my multiple sclerosis. I couldn’t continue working anymore. I told (Menorah Park) I would come back and volunteer. I chose the child care center because when I was working, it was one of the areas I was in charge of. Menorah Park had been in my life for a long time by then, so it was something I wanted to do.
Volunteering was also a natural transition for me because I was a volunteer long before I became a volunteer director. I was involved with ORT in my 30s, and my volunteer life at ORT is what got me my job at Menorah Park. I was hired as a secretary in the office, but within a year and a half of being there, the volunteer director was diagnosed with cancer. I eventually fully took over, and ended up staying 14 years.
And when my kids were younger, I volunteered at their schools and was active with my former synagogue, too. Volunteering has always been in my life – I remember my mother was involved with the Jewish Day Nursery (now Bellefaire JCB’s JDN Early Childhood Center) when I was a kid, and I used to help her set up the rummage sales. It seemed that once I got married, the best thing I could do was to also volunteer. I’m always volunteering for something, it’s hard to say no.
CJN: What interested you most about these specific endeavors?
Press: Volunteers at Menorah Park were like family to me. And I felt bad because there were residents there I was close with and I didn’t want to lose that part of my life. Deciding to volunteer helped me keep those connections, and keeps me going.
As for the MS society, my husband started volunteering there first. One of the people asked if I would be willing to be on their program committee. So while I was still working, I did some volunteering through that. But once I wasn’t working anymore, they courted me to come in more to volunteer. And I did –in the library, delivering holiday gifts and organizing its yearly fundraiser. My thought process was that since they’re paying to help me get therapy, I would do my part and help them out. I was paying it back because they had been there for me.
CJN: How does volunteering impact your life?
Press: It was nice especially during COVID-19 restrictions to have a connection to my communities and volunteer activities. With the self-help group, we have been operating on Zoom. It’s like a family when you volunteer and I miss seeing people regularly. I have to work my volunteering around babysitting my grandchildren, but it is something I always wanted to do. I like helping others and am an organized person. I’m lucky my MS isn’t that bad, so if I can help others, that is enough for me.
CJN: What is your favorite part about volunteering?
Press: It was always my second family. When I was working at Menorah Park, the volunteers were older and they treated me like their daughter or granddaughter. That was what got me through a lot while working. I didn’t want to miss out on the friendships I made, so it’s the friendships that stick out to me.
CJN: Why is volunteering an important part of a community?
Press: In Judaism, you’re supposed to do tzedakah. I might not give money all the time, but I’m giving of myself. I try to get my children involved, but they both work. I hope my granddaughters can see it too. We do the MS walk every year, and they’ve walked with me since they were babies. It’s part of being a good person and setting that example. Part of your life should include looking out for others, not just yourself.
Though Press didn’t have a problem finding the right volunteer activities for her retirement, she recognized that others might not be as fortunate. As a bit of advice, she said start back at square one: your community.
“Most communities have a senior center – see if they need help,” she said. “It keeps your mind going. Once you start, you can’t stop thinking of things. It keeps your mind going and your hands busy. And hopefully, it keeps you living longer because you have a goal in mind: doing something good for someone else.”