When working as a chemist, Steve Levitan said he didn’t have much time for volunteering.
Now 13 years after retirement, he is spending as much time as he can out of the house and in the community. Levitan teaches children how to read at the Cuyahoga County Detention Center and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Miles Park Elementary School and the now-closed Buckeye-Woodland Elementary School, all through the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s public education initiative. He also gives tours and demonstrations at Holden Arboretum and the Cleveland Botanical Gardens, and lends a hand through the city of Solon’s Blue Ribbon Adaptive Recreation Program, which is a community-based leisure program for people with developmental disabilities. There, he coached a softball team.
CJN: How did you get involved in these activities?
Levitan: First of all, at Holden, a very dear friend of mine was a volunteer there for several years with the school guide program. As I was nearing retirement, she knew I liked being outside in nature with animals and plants, so she suggested the arboretum. I asked if they were looking for any volunteers and that’s how I got started doing highlight tram tours. This would’ve been my 14th season, but the coronavirus is kind of getting in the way. So, what I’ve done there is we do these tram tours for people who can’t spend the time walking around or for those who are physically disabled. Those are one-hour tours and you go to all of the highlight gardens, giving people a pretty good idea of what is going on out there. We talk about a lot of things like plant life, animals or whatever is going on in the gardens.
With the botanical gardens, I got involved due to their merger with the arboretum. I was always interested in nature and wildlife and that is what originally got me into the arboretum and the gardens were a nice compliment. With them, I do something called a “creature feature,” where we show wildlife, mostly our panther chameleons. I show how they can adapt themselves. Kids are always interested, but you can’t believe how excited the adults also get in these presentations.
With Blue Ribbon, I had a lot of interest in helping with the city’s Special Olympics, but I was never able to get in touch with someone. So, I tried this. It gives me great pleasure to be able to help these people enjoy and play a game of softball. What is heartwarming is seeing the joy on participant’s faces. When you pitch a ball to them or help them run the bases, they clap and scream with joy. They’re just delighted to be included.
As for the public education initiative, if I can make these youngsters competent readers, I can have an impact on their future. I want them to succeed.
CJN: Was volunteering something you have always done?
Levitan: It was definitely something I always wanted to do. But when I was working, I was only working. I didn’t have time to do this sort of thing. But, I wanted to help out for many years and I finally have that opportunity.
CJN: Do you use your professional skills while volunteering?
Levitan: For the most part, not really. When I was a chemist, I was working in a lab. There isn’t a lot of what I was doing that could apply to anything other than chemistry. So, I am happy to try new things.
CJN: What is your favorite part of being involved?
Levitan: All of the things that I’ve done and the different places I’ve been, they’ve enriched my life in many different ways. As I help people and do the other things I’m doing, I realize I didn’t know any of this stuff. So, I’ve been able to pass a lot of that information on. It gives me great pleasure to get to be able to do that. My life has been enriched because of all of these activities.
CJN: What have you learned while volunteering?
Levitan: One of the things is that I have never worked while people who are developmentally disabled. I learned a lot from them and watching how they just accept life. They live life to the fullest and you learn a lot from just watching them. They have a joy for life in the things that many people take for granted. I never knew how I would respond to that but it really affected me emotionally to be with them.
As the pandemic continues to raise unexpected challenges within day-to-day life, Levitan said he hopes to return to regularly volunteering soon. Since he lives with lung disease, that makes him a high risk for contracting COVID-19.
“If I got infected, I likely wouldn’t survive it,” he said. “So, a lot of activities are on hold for me. I am unsure when things will get back to normal, but I’d love to continue doing my part.”