Volunteer’s Unplanned Retirement Leads to Life of Gratitude

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Bob Greenwell has faithfully served at the College Area Food Resource Center in San Diego for eight years. Photo courtesy of Catholic Charities, San Diego

Bob Greenwell is a planner. He worked hard at his accounting job for 40 years, planned how he and his wife would raise their family of six children, and mapped out his retirement.

What he didn’t plan was what he’d do after he retired.

“I thought I’d get up late, watch some TV, read the paper, have something to eat, watch some more TV,” he says. “I drove my wife nuts for six months.”

Then he happened on a blurb in his parish bulletin at Our Lady of Grace in San Diego’s El Cajon community. The Ignatian Volunteer Corps was looking for some good volunteers. It was answer to his searching. 

Eight years — and thousands of volunteer hours at a food pantry — later, Greenwell says answering the call to service through IVC has blessed him with a life of gratitude.

At the time, IVC had presented Greenwell with a few places where he might want to volunteer. He interviewed with only one: Catholic Charities College Area Food Resource Center.  He’s been there ever since. Every Wednesday and Thursday, he heads to the food bank that serves a largely poor community of refugees and immigrants. He makes sure the clients receive the food they need — some kind of protein, fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, bread, pastry, soup or canned meals. 

“It is tremendously helpful to be able to draw IVC volunteers, because we can count on their consistency,” says Ayumi Tachikawa, program coordinator for the Food Resource Center, which has partnered with IVC for more than eight years. “One of the hardest things with volunteer coordination is that they have changing schedules week to week and we cannot count on them here consistently.”

For Greenwell, that constancy of service has opened his eyes and heart to the lives of others who often carry heavy burdens. More than justing giving out food, Greenwell has come to understand that people sometimes need “to come in just to lay their burden down and have someone with an open heart just to listen.”

Bob Greenwell attends to the clients at the College Area Food Resource Center in San Diego, providing both food and an open, listening heart. Photo courtesy of Catholic Charities, San Diego

He listens to the burdens of grandparents raising their grandchildren because the parents suffer from addiction or are incarcerated. He listens to those who work 12 hours a day but still need help putting food on the table. He listens to those who struggle to make San Diego’s high rents. He listens to people who hail from Vietnam, Somalia, Russia, Latin America.

“A lot of the clients are living in vulnerable and unsteady situations,” explains Tachikawa. “We try to provide a space where clients feel welcomed, and part of that is having a familiar face that clients can expect to see when they come in.”

Greenwell is that familiar, steady presence, she says. He has watched the agency grow from providing just canned goods to a few clients to serving more than 800 clients a month, providing 2,500 pounds of fresh produce, bread and dairy. His ability to attest to the center’s services is valuable in both interacting with clients and outreach to the community.

“A lot of clients enjoy his deep and soothing voice,” Tachikawa adds. “He has a calm demeanor and his voice seems therapeutic to some!”

Yet for Greenwell, it is their presence in his life that has wrought changes in him. Through them, he says, his faith has become stronger. “It has made me more thankful,” he adds. “I think I’ve become more caring.”

IVC, too, has fostered his spiritual growth. The volunteers meet monthly, celebrate Mass, and share their experiences. Every volunteer has the opportunity to meet with a spiritual reflector, who walks with them on their spiritual journey. 

He plans to continue his work with IVC for as long as he can. 

“I get so much out of it, I see no reason to get out of it,” he says.

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