Working as an alcoholism and chemical dependency counselor for 50 years, Ellen Bishko has always had a knack for helping others.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bainbridge Township resident volunteered for 10 years on the board of the executive committee of the women’s council at the Cleveland Museum of Art. At one point, she was also on a statewide certification board for chemical dependency counselors. She served as chair, before the pandemic and various health issues. Bishko also used to serve as a board member on other local boards that dealt with alcoholism and chemical dependency issues.
Currently, Bishko lives at Judson’s South Franklin Circle community, where she is on the friendly caller list. As someone who moved to the community two-and-a- half years ago, she helps welcome new residents to the community. She is also the assistant chair of South Franklin Circle’s building committee and neighborhood welcoming committee.
CJN: What led you to these activities?
Bishko: Simply put, I’m still kind of new (at South Franklin Circle). It is really interesting that some residents have been here for eight to 10 years. They’re in a different place. By being fairly new, I can still enjoy meeting new people. And as a former social worker and counselor, I’m very comfortable wanting to meet new people. I love to meet and talk to new people and learn their stories. It’s fun, especially since I can still remember how it felt to be new. I want them to feel as welcome as I did when I moved here.
CJN: Why did you decide to volunteer during your retirement?
Bishko: It started with my career. Going into alcoholism and chemical dependency, especially 50 years ago, people were very isolated. Having the skill to be able to talk and not be afraid to, in those days, was a big thing. This was a very silent and careful thing. Being able to work and volunteer within agencies that did that, like for what is now called Laurelwood, or a women’s halfway house that used to be on West 25(th Street), helped me find what I do best. I already had these skills and was predisposed to help others, so the transition to volunteerism made sense to me.
But personally, volunteering helps me because I enjoy what I’m doing. I really like meeting and relating to new people. And that is simply it. It is something I enjoy and have enjoyed it my whole professional life. It shows that I can have new interests and learn new things, but that I can also build on my abilities that help people. Like with my time at the art museum, I volunteered and I didn’t really know much about art before that.
CJN: How does your Jewish heritage help inform your community involvement?
Bishko: It started with my mother, who was also a social worker. My mom and her two sisters were raised at Bellefaire when it was still an orphanage. And that was one of my first jobs. Additionally, my husband and I were married at (The Temple-Tifereth Israel) and our boys were bar mitzvah there. And actually, being Jewish in many ways, in terms of being responsible, that helps you become a person that puts other people first. That led me to my life as a social worker and a counselor.
CJN: Do you have any advice for others looking to find new meaning in retirement?
Bishko: I knew what I wanted to do when I retired. You look at yourself and determine what you enjoy doing. For me, I really liked being with people so it was easy for me to go in and get involved in these communities. Volunteering has made me feel good and useful. Anything you enjoy doing, you can harness it and make a difference.
As Bishko continues to enjoy her retirement, she is also looking forward to more volunteer work.
“At this stage, I enjoy my volunteer work,” she said. “We’re still very isolated (at my community). It’s not bad, at this point it’s safe. But, we’ll see if I can increase it. Maybe I’ll go back to the art museum. I wouldn’t mind that. I’m really lucky that I’ve been able to fall into some really fun opportunities. I’m hoping to continue that.”