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Volunteer spirit: Making a difference
JOHN WARNER/Gazette StaffVan and Dee Vancleeve get up close and personal with T.J., ZooMontana’s 500-pound male Siberian tiger. Van volunteers regularly at the zoo, and Dee and other family members also help out there. Dee also does volunteer work for RSVP.

Billings takes care of its own. From teenagers who work with children to retirees who help the infirm, volunteers are a stanchion of the community, aiding lives and weaving the social fabric.

United Way of Yellowstone County celebrated National Volunteer Week all last week to thank the people who've given back.

"On behalf of all of us at the Volunteer Center, I want to say a special thank you to the many volunteers who make a difference every day in our community," said Pamela Sanderson, director of the United Way Volunteer Center.

"Every kind of individual volunteers, from every socioeconomic class and every age group - I mean, we have volunteers from across the spectrum," Sanderson added.

But more are always needed.

Van and Dee Vancleeve have been volunteering since their retirement. After moving to Billings, they contacted the Yellowstone County chapter of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program.

Open to ages 55 and older, RSVP is sponsored by the Yellowstone County Council on Aging and part of Senior Corps' national network providing elder Americans the opportunity to apply life experience to community needs.

Van and Dee say RSVP has been flexible and helpful in finding volunteer jobs they enjoy.

"It takes you awhile sometimes to settle into something you want to do," Dee said.

Van has a volunteer job working with zoo keepers at ZooMontana.

"Right now they're in the process of what they call 'introducing the tigers,' which means they're trying to get them to mate," Van said.

His assignment is to log the behaviors of two Siberian tigers swirling around each other in their habitat, chuffing and roaring occasionally.

"Sometimes they fight," he said.

Each noise or sortie is recorded to "figure out what's the best time, if the female's in estrus and all that," he said.

Meanwhile, Dee assists RSVP in record keeping.

"It's really quite a task," she said of the complicated process of gathering government-required information from RSVP's 573 volunteers - up from 473 last year, and increasing.

The two worked in the same office in the Navy and have been married since 1955. RSVP allows them to volunteer together and alongside their daughters.

"It's nice if you can get your family involved," Dee said.

United Way's Sanderson believes local organizations encourage families to volunteer as a unit to accommodate double-income families.

"Families are becoming more and more interested in the things they can do together," Sanderson said.

One organization that works to be family-friendly is Eagle Mount.

Dedicated to integrating people with disabilities into community life, the group tries to be absolutely inclusive.

"In serving people of all different ages, we seek volunteers of all different ages," said Lynn Mullowney, Eagle Mount executive director.

In any given year, Eagle Mount will involve 500 Billings-area volunteers in a range of activities, including camp, arts and crafts, swimming, skiing and fishing, in short "anything that people take pleasure in and has an opportunity for social inclusion," Mullowney said.

Many activities can involve the whole family together, she said.

"In our lives we're so very busy, and to make a choice to volunteer is a choice to sacrifice something else," Mullowney said.

Another family-friendly volunteer occupation is Habitat for Humanity house building.

Debra Reiter works as the volunteer coordinator for the group.

"I work with an amazing, diverse amount of people," she said. Volunteers come from schools, churches, businesses and even out of town, she added.

"We have people we call 'regs,' and they're here all the time," she said.

Work is ongoing at Habitat properties every Saturday, year-round, and Reiter expects the group will finish five houses in Billings this year. The current project is under way on Wembly Place.

"What I find exciting about my job is working with so many caring people," she said from in front of a half-built house covered in volunteers.

Habitat is also seeking volunteers to help serve lunch to the house builders and to sit on the group's committees.

"I talk about it wherever I go because I'm always looking for volunteers," Reiter said.

DAVID GRUBBS/Gazette Staff Habitat for Humanity volunteers work on houses throughout the Billings area.

Many volunteer opportunities are good for families in another way: The activities give families much-needed support.

Billings Head Start offers child-focused programs to increase school-readiness within poor families. Programs include literacy education, medical and dental services, food, parental assistance and services for children with special needs.

Volunteers range from foster grandmothers sponsored by St. Vincent Healthcare to Senior High student Bronc Buddies.

Head Start "Granny" Pauline Sedam, 74, is known among the children as "Grandma Polly." For the last five years, she's spent as many as seven hours a day working in Room 101 of the Head Start main building at 619 Sixth Ave. N.

Her day starts at 8 a.m. when she arrives to "help get things lined up," she said. She signs the children in, assists with breakfast and "then they do their thing," she said.

After the morning, Sedam will read to the kids, play games with them and "give them big loves," she said.

A friend led her to volunteer, and Sedam is glad she got involved.

"I love it. It's nice when they come up and tell you that they love you," she said. "They like to cuddle up every once in a while."

Brandon Zabrocki, 24, an assistant relationship manager with US Bank and a Billings native, also volunteers with Head Start. He was inspired during a Chamber of Commerce Leadership Billings outing.

Visiting a classroom full of 3-year-olds, "I just naturally gravitated toward the Play-Doh table and started playing with the kids," he said. "I'm young at heart, I guess."

He's since made weekly visits to the youngsters, whom he described as obsessed with dinosaurs, robots and Spider-Man.

"The whole first month they were hanging on my arms and web-swinging, with me as the webs," he said.

As well as providing a positive male role model, the interaction is "a relaxer for me from the day-to-day banking world," Zabrocki said.

Parents require assistance, as well.

Sister Mary Dostil said Angela's Piazza, a drop-in counseling center for women, has a clientele of mostly single mothers. The center offers parenting classes, abuse and incest counseling and substance-abuse recovery programs.

"Some women come because there's a crisis; others need an advocate," Dostil said.

Whether it's a businesswoman joining the fund-raising committee or a cook for a special brunch, the center has found that it's best to match volunteers to tasks.

"We usually like to visit with them to see what their gifts are … what they're good at," she said.

Volunteers are needed for a group of at-risk girls called Daughters of Tradition.

"This is a program for the girls to have fun together and build self-esteem … in a safe environment," she said.

The center operates with two full-time employees and one part-timer. The rest of the assistance coming from volunteers. Dostil estimated that the center will have as many as 60 or 70 volunteers in a single year.

Two volunteers come on a weekly basis, two coordinate programs and dozens of others help with the phones, secretarial work and mailings. However, volunteers are needed for everything from helping single mothers relocate to offering parenting advice.

"We would like to have women [volunteers] who have experience doing their own parenting to act as mentors … because being a single parent is a difficult job," Dostil said.

Most of the women whom Angela's Piazza assists are working single mothers with preschoolers, she added.

BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff Doris volunteers at the registration desk for visitors at the Yellowstone County Detention Center on Saturday mornings and makes sure that they don’t get rowdy.

Not all volunteer work is family-related. Occasionally, it may even seem unpleasant. Some truly tough jobs await the right volunteer.

For instance, Doris, 79, asked that her last name not be used for this article because she sometimes interacts with rough customers as an RSVP volunteer at the Yellowstone County Detention Center.

Her work at the jail allows more inmates to receive visitors and frees up law enforcers to "do what they're trained to do," she said.

"I'm just there to facilitate the people and make it the best I can," she said. "Sometimes it's a little horrendous."

She spends her Saturday mornings in a brick room with metal benches. She calls names and sees that visitors don't get rowdy or inappropriate.

While her manner is pleasant, it's clear she has a spine of steel.

Sometimes drunken belligerents come in; other times she has to turn young people away who come without a guardian. The majority are sad.

"By and large, they're all very nice, really," she said. She admitted there was a lot of crying and added, "I was bounced off the wall one time."

"It isn't an easy place to be - this isn't a hotel; it's a jail."

The Saturday before Easter, Doris said, there were more children than usual. Some gave her hugs, and one 8-year-old boy, who, with her help, was able to visit an egg hunt, gave her a candy.

"We try to make it easy, not hard," she said. "The hard part is just coming down here."

Doris enjoys visible signs that she is helping.

"I'll tell you the truth. I do a lot of volunteering at a lot of places, and (the jail) is really my favorite."

The work at Big Sky Hospice is so delicate that volunteers are individually interviewed, undergo a background check and then receive three days of training.

"The people are really dedicated coming in to invest that kind of time," said Volunteer Coordinator Angie Strahn. "Many of our volunteers come from families who have had hospice care."

The background check and training are necessary to ensure the sensitivity of volunteers entering the homes of terminally ill patients.

"We take it very seriously," said Lana Halverson, Stahn's co-coordinator.

"We get them, we train them, we love them and they go out and everybody loves them," Strahn said. And there is always someone to back them up, she added.

Hospice volunteers work alongside doctors, nurses, social workers and other volunteer groups, such as Senior Helping Hands, which help the elderly live more comfortably.

When Eleanor Craig needed care, her husband Pete and daughter Sharon said that the organization was there for them for two months of home care and then 15 days at its Horizon Hospice Home.

Big Sky Hospice "is the most awesome place," Sharon Craig said. "They've been our lifesavers."

Hospice volunteer Joyce Lake, 55, had to give up her car last July when insurance rates went up. She had already spent a month with a patient and was not about to abandon her charge.

The solution? Buy a bicycle.

"I knew I couldn't get from the bus line to her, so I was biking it," she said. "Before that I hadn't been on a bike in 40 years."

She bought the bicycle from a friend for $20, and so far the only difficulty has been contending with variable weather. The bicycle means she doesn't have to walk from bus stops and can still make her visits, although patients do need to be fairly close to a bus stop.

Jean Forseth, Big Sky Hospice program manager, noted that volunteers like Lake are needed more than ever due to increasing numbers of terminally ill patients.

"Our volunteers have become critical to us because patients are staying for shorter times and are sicker," Forseth said.

JOHN WARNER/Gazette staff Hospice volunteer Joyce Lake enjoys riding her bicycle to do volunteer work, but says she misses her car, which she says rising insurance costs prevent her from driving.

Part of keeping sick people from becoming sicker, is providing them with wholesome meals.

AIDSpirit Montana is a volunteer organization whose purpose is to assist Billings residents living with HIV/AIDS in meeting their nutritional requirements. The main service of the organization is to provide home-delivered meals.

Our clients "need nourishment, and, even if they have the financial resources - which they often don't - they don't have the physical resources to make their own meals," explained Sister Mary Vincentia Maronick, known to friends as Sister Mary V.

The group is seeking individuals to provide and deliver meals, and Maronick said that there is a tremendous need for the assistance.

"We're the only organization in Billings that does anything like this," Maronick said.

She was inspired to organize the group by a young friend who died of the disease. Maronick started the group almost a decade ago and has more than a hundred individuals who volunteer or contribute funds, as well as five restaurants donating meals. Another 10 people prepare home-cooked meals, and about 15 others (with some overlap) deliver the meals throughout the week.

"It's a great project," said Brent Zinnecker owner of Zee Diner. From the diner, Zinnecker is able to provide three meals a week to one family and two cups of soup a day to another.

"When you do things such as this, with the meals, you're helping people directly," Zinnecker said. "It makes you feel good, gives you a feeling of helping out."

Volunteers who work with the infirm or make a commitment to a child's life, need backup. And the groups themselves benefit from oversight.

Hence, organizations like United Way help manage the networking and mobilizing.

Part of the Yellowstone County community for more than 50 years, United Way not only helps connect volunteers to opportunities, but vice versa.

It also organizes events, such as the Day of Caring.

Billings' Day of Caring in September 2002 brought together 800 volunteers from local businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations, making it one of the largest such United Way events in the country. The day's activities involved everything from painting interior areas of the Billings Studio Theatre to assisting homebound seniors on a trip to ZooMontana. The volunteer day is also an important connection between donors and charities.

Volunteers needed You'll find are many volunteer opportunities in and around Billings. Here is how to contact those groups mentioned in the accompanying article:

• AIDSpirit Montana. 252-0395.

• Angela's Piazza. 255-0611.

• Big Sky Hospice. 247-3313.

• Habitat for Humanity. 652-0960.

• Head Start. 245-7233.

• Senior Helping Hands. 259-3111.

• RSVP. 245-6177.

• United Way. 252-3839 or 1-800-VOLUNTEER.

• ZooMontana. 652-8100 ext. 4.

For more volunteer opportunities, visit

United Way has an online, searchable database for volunteer recruitment at And groups can add their volunteer information online, as well.

Darrell Ehrlick, a Billings accountant recognized for his volunteer efforts as United Way of Yellowstone County's Citizen of the Year in 2002, recommends that potential volunteers take an inventory of their abilities and passions.

"It's kind of like the old Nike ad, 'Just Do It,' " he said.

Although always in need of more help, groups are quick to thank their volunteers and the community for support already rendered.

"People who have moved in from other states will tell you almost to a person that Montana is blessed with people who are caring and giving," Ehrlick said.

One of those people, and the inspiration for this article, was Leona Root, 83, who called the newspaper shortly before her death and wanted to find a way to get others involved in volunteerism as she was.

Root was a volunteer from the time she moved from Missouri to Billings 14 years ago until she died on April 14.

She volunteered through RSVP and for a time went to the RSVP center to participate in various crafts. After the office moved farther from her apartment, her participation was limited to her main effort, knitting mittens for the needy.

"I grew up working and sewing," she explained.

As a child, she helped her mother stitch quilts.

"And to think we did it with kerosene lamps," she said.

Volunteering gave her opportunities to meet people and even to appear on TV, Root said.

"I enjoyed it, and my grandkids were fascinated," said Root, who was a volunteer and an advocate of volunteerism until the very end.

Jeremy Russell may be reached at