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I’m thinking about a volunteer, Barney who took orientation six months ago. Barney is a retired welder, a Vietnam veteran, a gruff guy who rides his motorcycle everywhere, even in the cold. In orientation he stuck out like a firecracker on a birthday cake. I honestly didn’t think he would do any volunteering. Silly me, I looked at the wrapper of him, not the Pastrami sandwich inside.

Boy, was I wrong. Barney has turned out to be a “go to” volunteer. He accepts pretty much anything we ask of him, provided he has the time. He quietly takes his assignment with honor, then does it justice. I look at him and think of the archeologist, who spends weeks tirelessly digging, then finds an object covered with aged debris. The object is a find once dusted off and the search was worth it.

Turns out Barney has a hidden talent that he never mentioned and frankly, I never would have guessed. He can play the harmonica. He started playing for one nursing home patient  and now they all ask for him. His bluesy New Orleans stylings get the fingers tapping, the mouths turned up in smiles, the eyes closed. He transports, soothes and frees. To step into a room filled with Barney’s music is to pierce the intimate bubble.

I called Barney the other day just to thank him. Words were not coming easy to me. “Hey thanks for playing the harmonica, it’s really cool,” I could say or “Your music is just so inspiring, the patients feel like they’re floating in space.” How lame.

Since I had nothing profound, I decided to just call and say hi. Barney answered the phone and said, “I’m really glad you called. I’ve been meaning to call you. I just wanted to thank you and everyone else for allowing me to volunteer. I can’t begin to tell you how much this means to me.”

Barney went on to hint that he has not had an easy time since Vietnam. He hinted at some periods of darkness and compared his self-image now to light. I never really got to make a phone speech about how much his volunteering means to us. It would have been, well, lame.

What do we get with volunteers? We get them, the yin and the yang of them. I silently wept for Barney’s past hurts and took comfort in his present. Perhaps when Barney plays his harmonica, our patients feel the complexity of him and they can relate.

I am so humbled that he has chosen to give with us. I think our patients see the yin and yang of Barney and take comfort in his “realness”. Realness is what they crave, not plastered smiles of a “do-gooder.”

Is there joy without pain? Are there great volunteers without personal tragedy? Or are great volunteers really human complexities with heart?