Now I Understand

By Ashley Pressman
Executive Director
Jewish Volunteer Connection

When I began working at Jewish Volunteer Connection in 2004, I wanted to find new and innovative ways for Jewish young adults to volunteer. Working with a committee, we decided to bring dinner to the Ronald McDonald House once a month.  When asked why we chose that project, I answered that the families staying there were going through a tough time and we could help to ease their burden by making sure they had a hot meal when they got back from the hospital each night.

I knew the answer to give. It’s a good and true answer.  But I didn’t really understand.

A few years later, I reconnected with a college friend through Facebook and entered her life at a point when her 2 ½-year-old son had recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Through Facebook, I followed her through treatment and, ultimately, to a stay at a Ronald McDonald House in New York.  I remember her posting about the nights when she would stumble home to get a few hours sleep while her husband sat at their son’s bedside.  And I remember thinking – I hope someone’s making sure that she gets something to eat.

And then I understood.

I understood that ultimately, we serve because there are people in need and problems to be solved. When all is said and done, we don’t volunteer just because it feels good, although it does. We don’t do it just because it’s a resume-builder, although it is.  We don’t do it just because we think we might meet that special someone at a volunteer project, although we might (just ask me and my husband).

We volunteer because we recognize that someone is in need and we have the power to help.  As the Jewish sage Hillel says, “If I am only for myself, What am I?” For me, the answer is “I am a part of the community.”

Recently, after nearly four years, my friend learned that they are again entering the battle against brain cancer.  I feel helpless. What can I do? How can I help?

Now I understand.

I can help by making sure that a family in Baltimore dealing with a medical crisis doesn’t have to worry about dinner by bringing a meal to any of Baltimore’s three hospital housing facilities (including the Hackerman-Patz House at Sinai Hospital.) I can make sure that the siblings of children with chronic medical needs get special attention through the Jewish Big Brother Big Sister program. At my son’s birthday party in a couple of weeks, I can get the guests to make get-well-soon cards for my friend’s son and children like him.

At JVC, our motto is “Go Forth and Do Small Things.” It’s easy to become overwhelmed by problems we think are too big for us and situations we fear we can’t affect.  But as Pirke Avot says, “It is not yours to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Now I understand.

I can’t do everything.  But I can do something. Everyone can do something.

For more information about volunteer opportunities in the community, visit or contact JVC at 410-843-7489 or

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Filed under Families, Social Services, Volunteering & Advocacy

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