“You want to make some type of mark in this world”
For Karen Bender, volunteer service and career occupy parallel tracks; she works as both an occupational therapist at a hospital in Harford County and also as a substitute teacher at the Children’s Christian Center in Bel Air. Karen also spends much of her free time volunteering with the children at Catholic Charities’ Anna’s House in Bel Air. (Anna’s House is a shelter that provides transitional and permanent housing and other vital services for women and children experiencing homelessness in Harford County.)
For the past four years, Karen has spent most of her Monday and Thursday evenings as the lead volunteer in the child center at Anna’s House, caring for the children as their mothers receive life skills training. While the child center provides care for children from birth through age 16, Karen spends most of her time with toddlers and preschoolers, playing games, singing songs and doing arts and crafts.
Older children at Anna’s House also get special attention. One of Karen’s favorite activities is enjoying “spa nights” with the teenage girls.
“This is my way to interact with children again now that my own children are grown,” she said. “It’s such a fun way to give back.”
Volunteering to work with children is an engrained habit for Karen. As a pre-teen, Karen got involved with a Head Start program in her native Hamburg, Pennsylvania, and she has done volunteer work with children ever since.
Finding Anna’s House was fortuitous. “I was looking for volunteer opportunities, so I attended the Harford County Volunteer Expo, and that’s where I met Cindy Hanley (the volunteer manager at Anna’s House).” After learning about the types of volunteer work available at Anna’s House, Karen was sold.
In her role as lead volunteer, Karen is in charge of the other volunteers who work with her; many are students from local high schools who come to Anna’s House as part of their service learning requirement. “I kind of feel that I’m mentoring them and helping them learn leadership skills,” she said.
“Karen is dedicated to serving our children and mothers and has been exceptional,” said Cynthia Wood, the director of Anna’s House. “Her wisdom and caring heart are amazing blessings to Anna’s House.”
As Karen spoke about the clients she’s worked with at Anna’s House, she relates one story that had a particular impact on her. As she held a photo of three children dressed up as pirates, she talked about one, Kevin, who emigrated from West Africa with his mother. “She was just so devoted to doing what was best for Kevin. Her whole life and focus was to provide for him,” Karen said. “She worked very hard to establish herself, she got a part-time job and enrolled Kevin in a preschool program. She knew the value of education.”
Success stories like this energize Karen, who happily reported that Kevin and his mother were able to transition into a stable life, with permanent housing in the community and eventually U.S. citizenship.
Besides work and her volunteer activities, Karen is a devoted caregiver to her family. Both her husband and father have had major health challenges in the past year, her father diagnosed with prostate cancer and her husband with lymphoma. While Karen reported that her husband is responding well to treatment, she recently had to take a leave of absence from Anna’s House to help care for her father after he was admitted to hospice care; he passed away on December 9.
Karen teared up as she talked about these challenges and how it inspires her commitment to help others. “You only have so much time in your life,” she said, “and when it’s over you want to make some type of mark in this world.”
15 Dec 16 12:00 AM CST
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