Our Volunteerism at Work series explores the volunteer culture at Highmark Health, which is a longstanding component of the company’s mission, vision and values. The series will cover how Highmark Health supports employee volunteerism, profile employees who volunteer, and report on events in our communities where Highmark Health employees pitched in to make a difference.

Back in November, I read an article on this blog about Highmark Health employee participation in Make a Difference Day. It matched my own experience of how people here step up when it comes to helping people in our communities. According to the article, 300 employees and family members volunteered with 25 different organizations just on that day alone. More recently I learned that in 2014, Highmark Health employees officially logged about 41,500 volunteer service hours valued at nearly $1 million.

That inspired me to think about experiences I’ve had as a volunteer, including partnering with co-workers Leslie Bauer and Karen Shaner on the Employee Engagement team in the Information Technology (IT) area of the company. In addition to being part of that group, the three of us (recently joined by Patti Locke as well) have also worked somewhat independently to engage more employees in volunteer work to help others. With that in mind, I’d like to share a story about one recent experience in particular.

Getting Involved: The Employee Volunteer Program

Highmark Health has a formal, company-wide volunteer program that is designed to encourage, support and recognize employees who participate in community service. That includes partnering with the Jefferson Awards, considered America’s “Nobel Prize” for public service.

As I said, in my experience, the volunteer spirit throughout the company is exemplary. The Employee Volunteer program helps harness that spirit by linking employees with specific projects and community fund-raising events in a range of areas: mentoring children, promoting health and wellness, helping individuals become more self-sufficient, and much more.

In IT, volunteers have been involved in numerous projects recently, including collecting for local food banks (more than 1,200 pounds of food collected for the Central PA Food Bank alone!) and a successful “Keep Our Neighbors Warm” drive in both our central and western Pennsylvania regions.

The purpose of “Keep Our Neighbors Warm,” which took place in October 2014, is right there in the name: We collected items that would help less fortunate people in our Highmark Health communities to stay warm during the winter. Altogether, more than 350 items were donated and delivered, including coats, hats, gloves, snow pants, socks, and blankets.

Employee volunteers at Keeping Our Neighbors Warm drive

Employees Lisa Kehr, left, and Renita Smith, right, help sort and pack up what we collected during the Keep Our Neighbors Warm drive.

Making a Difference for a Struggling Veteran

For the western Pennsylvania area, where I live and work, I was lucky enough to be the person who delivered all those winter-warming items to their destination: Wood Street Commons here in Pittsburgh. Wood Street Commons provides shelter and support services to people dealing with homelessness, mental illness and other issues. Programs at Wood Street Commons cover a range of needs, from helping individuals find safe and affordable housing of their own to a permanent housing program where residents receive assistance with care management, daily life skills training, medication monitoring, and more.

Appropriately, it was a cold day in Pittsburgh, with some of the season’s first flurries falling, when I pulled up a cart loaded with boxes of warm clothing and blankets for the folks at Wood Street to give to the temporarily less fortunate.

Now, in one of those boxes was a little pink-and-white checkered coat — a small child’s coat that looked brand new. You can see it in the photo below: Coats donated to Keeping Our Neighbors Warm drive

As I finished getting everything inside, a guy came up to me and asked if he could have that little coat.

I used to work up the street from Wood Street Commons, and over the past couple of years I’ve met and talked to some of the individuals and families there who have benefitted from their services and eventually found permanent housing. I thought he might be in that situation when I saw him looking at the coat.

It’s one thing to be homeless when no one else depends on you. But to be a parent and homeless must add a whole other level of guilt and worry.

Whatever his situation, it wasn’t really my call to give him the coat. I looked at the woman behind the counter. She smiled and nodded, giving the go-ahead for him to take it. As I turned to leave, he walked out the door with me.

When dealing with people in survival mode, I know that the stories you get are not always completely true. But what this fellow told me and how he acted seemed pretty authentic, and worth sharing to show just how much a little help can mean to someone.

He told me he was a vet who had not lived at home with his young daughter and her mother since he got back from overseas. His daughter was 18 months old when he left for Afghanistan. He ended up doing back-to-back tours — two years overseas. During that time, he said, his daughter’s mother found another guy who would take care of her and her little girl, and they fell in love and got married.

On top of that, he had some health problems after he returned, he said, and he wasn’t doing well in finding a job. He’d been a laborer with a lawn care company for a while, but that dried up with the seasons changing, so now he was looking again.

He told me that he got to see his little girl once a week, and they would walk around the block together or he would carry her on his shoulders. He didn’t think she had a coat, not something nice like the pink-and-white checkered one, and he really wanted to be able to give it to her.

He started crying and gave me a hug.

He confessed that he hadn’t told his daughter’s mom that he’s “living” occasionally at Wood Street Commons. Like I said, it felt pretty authentic. I think he wanted more than anything to be in a better place in his life so he could contribute more to his little girl. He was struggling to get to that better place. So that coat — it held a lot more meaning than just a free piece of clothing.

We Volunteer Because We Care

Pile of donations for Keeping Our Neighbors Warm drive

The pink-and-white checkered coat at the beginning of its journey, one of many generous donations employees brought in to the office.

I share that vet’s story because we don’t always get to see the real, personal impact of our donations and volunteer work on someone’s life. We donate clothes, food, holiday gifts, money or time or talent, because we care about other people in our communities. And that feels good, but I got to experience something special beyond that — seeing in person how that caring made a difference in someone’s life.

Thanks to the generosity of Highmark Health employees, that man had a nice kids’ coat for his daughter — and the joy of being able to contribute something to her well-being.

Not all health care is done by physicians or hospitals. Volunteering is a way that we can all provide care and help to others.

Whether done on your own or through your workplace, volunteering helps so many people in so many different ways. For all those people who donate time, talent and treasure, I hope a story like this helps you know and feel the good you are doing. If you haven’t been involved in something like this before, maybe this story will give you that little extra incentive or sense of connection that inspires you to donate or volunteer next time there’s an opportunity. If you’re a Highmark Health employee, check your company’s intranet (for example, HighWire for Highmark Inc. employees) for more information on how you can volunteer at work.