(This story was first published in the April 10, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Katy Savage, Standard Staff
WEST WINDSOR — Mary Fenn can’t walk well anymore. She’s not physically strong and her back is weak.
At 96 years old, she wears arthritic gloves over her hands and hearing aids in her ears, but she doesn’t focus on what she can’t do, she concentrates on what she can.
Fenn, of West Windsor, recently started volunteering at Mount Ascutney Hospital for a few hours every Friday, greeting people at the entrance.
“I like people and I like to serve people,” Fenn said.
Fenn has devoted her life to helping others. She started volunteering at a hospital in Connecticut — right after she recovered from a yearlong paralysis.
Fenn collapsed on the floor with a temperature of 104 degrees while she was on her honeymoon in Italy when she was 19 years old. Doctors told her that she had tubercular meningitis and would die in four days.
“My husband couldn’t find a black tie,” Fenn said.
When four days passed and Fenn lived, doctors diagnosed her with poliomyelitis. She was in the hospital for two-and-a-half months and couldn’t stand for six. When she recovered, she decided she wanted to help crippled children. Fenn started working at a Connecticut children’s hospital when she was 21. She was an aid in the school and a volunteer in the cerebral palsy clinic.
Mary Fenn, 96, greets people as they arrive at Mount Ascutney Hospital. She has been volunteering all her life. Rick Russell Photo
“I enjoy taking on challenges,” she said. * Statistics show Fenn lives in a good state to be a volunteer.
Vermont had the 10th highest volunteer rate — 34.4 percent — in the country according to a recent study from the Corporation for National and Community Service. More than one in three people volunteered for an organization in 2012. There are about 184,290 volunteers in Vermont, who contribute about $453.9 million of service, according to the study.
Meanwhile, Woodstock was the most generous town, by donations, in Vermont according to the most recent data from philanthropy.com. Residents gave $2.4 million back in 2008 — with a median contribution of $3,166.
Some think the strong local communities lend themselves to having such active volunteers.
|One In 184,000: Read About How Some Of Vermont’s Volunteers Got Started.
The first week Susan Inui arrived in Woodstock in 1998, she went to Pentangle Arts Council, became a member and offered to help in any way she could.
“It was one of the reasons we moved to Woodstock,” she said. “It had live arts performances. It had an organization called Pentangle.”
Inui, who now lives in Quechee, has since become a volunteer at the Ottaquechee Health Foundation, the Interfaith Housing Coalition and has been involved with the Woodstock Universalist Unitarian Church.
Inui, who has been volunteering since elementary school, thinks giving back is an important part of living in this area.
“(Volunteering is) really a part of the fabric of this community,” Inui said. “People are willing to roll up their sleeves and do what needs to be done.”
Some weeks she doesn’t spent more than a couple hours volunteering, other times volunteering is like a part-time job in addition to her full-time work as a realtor.
“It seems natural that I would pick and choose volunteer activities that are, to me, meaningful and I think are meaningful to the quality of life in the community (which) couldn’t exist if there weren’t a lot of us rolling up our sleeves and pitching in,” she said. * April is National Volunteer Month, a time to encourage and recognize those who continuously donate their time. There are more than 50 nonprofits in Woodstock, which exist with the help of hundreds of volunteers.
The Thompson Senior Center has 160 volunteers, which contribute more than 6,000 hours of time each year.
“We really could not operate without volunteers,” said Executive Director Deanna Jones.
Volunteers deliver Meals on Wheels on three different routes for the senior center, they take people to medical appointments, work at the reception desk, wait tables in the dining room and facilitate programs.
“They really are the heart of the organization,” Jones said.
About 200 people are signed up to volunteer at Pentangle. The arts organization wouldn’t be what is without them.
“They are very important,” said Volunteer Coordinator Serena Nelson.
Some volunteer to get to know their neighbors better.
Diane Bennett, 66, started volunteering at the Reading Food Shelf shortly after she moved to Reading six years ago.
She helps organize the food and unload the trucks at the food shelf, which is open twice a week. The people she serves have become like a second family.
“You get a very good sense of your community,” Bennett said.
She said volunteering has given her a way to become more engaged in her town.
“I was missing seeing people because Vermont can be a little isolated sometimes when you’re retired and not working,” she said. * The values of serving others were instilled in Fenn from her from a young age. Her mother volunteered for the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Vermont and her father was a state senator who was an active volunteer in Springfield.
When Fenn moved to West Windsor, she started volunteering for the West Windsor History Center, an organization she continued serving every week for 25 years. She also spent three years researching and writing the “History of West Windsor, Vermont,” a book published in 1977. Fenn wrote it simply because she wanted to save the history of her town.
“I like to do things for others,” she said. “I like to learn by doing.”
Last Friday was Fenn’s fourth time volunteering at Mt. Ascutney. She sat in her chair with a bright smile on her face, laughing and telling stories with fellow volunteer Kathleen O’Donnell.
It didn’t surprise many when Fenn said she wanted to work at the hospital.
“I just thought, ‘That’s Mary Fenn,’” said Martha Zoerheide director of Volunteers in Action. “Most people concentrate on what they can’t do and she just refuses to do that.”
Fenn inspires others with her positivity.
“She just accepts life the way it is and makes the best of it,” Zoerheide said.
Despite post-polio disease, Fenn uses the help of her walker to walk about one mile every day. She wants to stay in shape so she can continue helping others.
“If I’m going to be this old I want to be in the best condition that I possibly can and I work for it,” she said. “I think about (keeping) myself physically, mentally and spiritually in good enough shape so I can share it with others.”