Volunteer Bill Allen shows visitors to the Tennessee Aquarium the proper way to touch stingrays and sharks.By John Pierce

Our daughter Meredith’s first part-time job was at a delicious barbecue restaurant in Macon, Ga. After nearly three weeks of serving up the good stuff, the state revenue department shut down the business — and plastered the door with citations for unpaid taxes.

My daughter never received a paycheck.

She took the injustice in stride while I was stewed. (Of course, she knew who would cough up the cash needed for her senior beach trip — the goal of her brief employment.)

When we passed the shuttered building recently I made some remark about Meredith being a “volunteer” at Pig In A Pit. But I guess it could be called involuntary volunteerism.

However, real volunteers are a major force for good — both in emergency situations such as responding to disasters and in ongoing service to organizations that improve the quality of life for many.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported that approximately 62.8 million Americans volunteered through some service organization in the one-year period ending September 2010. That’s more than a quarter of the available U.S. population age 16 and older.

My mantra to college students with whom I worked (and recruited into volunteer service) for many years was: “If you think you are too busy to serve now, you will always have a reason to not serve in the future.”

One smart-mouthed student responded that I got paid for taking them out and off to do community service. That led to my joining hands with a few others in Marietta, Ga., to form the Cobb County affiliate of Habitat for Humanity years ago.

At times, however, I’ve not lived up as well to my challenge to students. It’s always easy to say, “Someday, when I have more time…”

And, typically, retirees and empty-nesters do have more time to give in service. They are major forces in hitting the road to serve those hit by devastating storms or committing to work a voluntary shift in a hospital, museum or other good place.

That thought came to mind recently as my daughters and I passed the shallow, open tanks at the Tennessee Aquarium where Bill Allen invited guests to touch the small stingrays, sharks and other sea life using “two fingers — and only two fingers.”

“Two fingers — and two fingers only”(My daughters regretted leaving that area too soon. Later Bill told us that an eager boy reached too far and fell into the pool. That would have been better than any exhibit my girls ventured.)

After working many years as an employee to make Chattanooga a better place to live and visit, Bill and his wife, Mary Jayne, a retired Christian educator, are willingly giving time along with many others to enhance their community.  Weekly service at the aquarium is just one place where they lend a hand.

Longtime volunteers are quick to tell you that their focus is not on what the experience requires of them but of the rewards they receive. The payback is something different and more lasting than a paycheck.





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