“The moment we put him in our arms, there was a bond,” says adoptive father Donald about his son, Gianni. Donald and his wife, Vanessa, brought Gianni home from the hospital almost four years ago, in September of 2011. And now, every year he gets to celebrate Father’s Day, “like any other father—it is just a wonderful feeling to be a parent.” Adoptive families are unique, but their desires for their children are universal—that they be happy and healthy.
To help create their special and loving family, Donald and Vanessa turned to Volunteers of America. Vanessa’s father had volunteered with the residential re-entry program for many years and they trusted the organization to guide them in the adoption process. Donald says he feels blessed to have been selected by Gianni’s birthmother to care for her natural born son, and to have maintained some openness in their adoption plan. Their family meets with Gianni’s birthmother and her daughter, Gianni’s biological sister, several times a year. Maintaining bonds with Gianni’s birthmother will be very important for Gianni as he gets older and starts to have questions about his adoption story. But for now, Gianni is just enjoying getting to play with his sister.
Donald and Vanessa are excited to share their adoption experience with friends, as well as other families at church and at school. “We feel like we are now stewards or ambassadors for adoption,” says Donald. Many people have asked for advice, some of which already have natural born children. “People have many reasons to adopt; some cannot conceive themselves, but others just want to expand their families and they feel called to adoption.” The couple has also spoken at a Volunteers of America adoption meeting for potential adoptive parents as well as volunteered at our annual Golf Star Classic, the sole fundraiser for the adoption program. These efforts are made with the intention of helping others to also realize their dream of becoming parents.
It is clear when you speak to Donald, why he feels so compelled to advocate for adoption—Gianni. “He is a loving, kind, compassionate kid, who can do so much. The thought and emotion that he puts behind the things that he says are inspiring.” For instance, when you ask him how his day was, he might just say, “Amazing!!” Donald is enjoying watching Gianni grow –he knows how to stick up for himself, as Donald found out looking on at a recent birthday party. “That’s what you want, to know that they’ll be ok.” But mostly, Gianni is a fun-loving and active child, exited to play any sport, especially football, T-ball, and basketball.
Donald and Vanessa are raising Gianni with care and appreciation for their son, his birth mother and Volunteers of America. This Father’s Day, with the love and support that he and Vanessa give Gianni, Donald is sure to get what he wants—a happy and healthy child.
At Volunteers of America, our dedicated staff work hard to care for the most vulnerable individuals in our community. As a result we place a high value on healthy lifestyles and seek to encourage and support employees in their efforts towards wellbeing.
Gary Zapata is one such employee who has shown leadership in the arena of healthy practices. Below, Gary shares the practical ways he sustains a healthy lifestyle:
What are your top 3 healthy habits?
“For a snack during the day I’ll have nuts, which are easy and healthy.
My wife and I shop on the outside edge of the grocery store, mostly, except for ice cream and freshly frozen veggies.
We also walk to the park with our son, Lucas, in the stroller—it’s a mile there, we walk in the park, and then a mile back. For five years my wife and I did not have a car, so we walked everywhere in the city.”
What is your favorite healthy food?
“As a comfort food at my house we eat lentils with carrots, potatoes, cinnamon, salt, and pepper. We eat it with pita and yogurt.”
Do you have any guilty pleasures as far as food or activities?
Do you face any challenges to your wellness?
“Scheduling—when you have a lot of roles and you have to serve your family members, your friendships, your community, and your work, it can be difficult to make time for your needs.”
What do you think drives you to be fit?
“It’s internal. I am very competitive with myself. I am often striving to be better in various aspects of life. I also enjoy the camaraderie of sports when I am able to play them.”
What’s your fondest fitness memory or experience?
“Going on 4-5 hour long walks with my wife (then girlfriend), in college when we were in Madrid.”
In your own words, what is wellness?
“Wellness is having good habits that can last a lifetime. It is not performing herculean acts or doing extreme diets, but having a balanced set of habits that can be maintained. It is not always easy, but it is sustainable.”
Gary does a great job of maintaining wellness on a personal level. To support our employees with their fitness goals, we offer ongoing initiatives such as reduced gym membership costs, a walking club (that is participating in the upcoming Crescent Connection Bridge Run), free yoga trial memberships, Biggest Loser competitions, our Wellness Fair, financial wellness consultations, and spiritual wellness opportunities.
The pathway to well-being is multifaceted, but Volunteers of America is proud to be a positive part of the journey.
Gary and his family will soon be moving to Seattle for new opportunities. We appreciate Gary’s many contributions to Volunteers of America over the years–including the example of wellness he’s been for our staff–and he will be greatly missed. We wish the very best of luck to Gary as he embarks on this new endeavor!
Spring break! Time to party and shirk your responsibilities—pretend to be someone else for a while, right? Well, students from Rice University, St. Mary’s University Law School and Cornell College decided instead to take on responsibilities, and not to pretend to be someone else, but to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. These volunteers came to work with Volunteers of America for three main reasons: to uplift others, to be immersed in a vibrant culture and to engage in a multi-faceted approach to human services.
Volunteers of America’s relationship with these colleges provided the opportunity to turn the students’ passion into participation. For five days, the students worked at our Community Living Services group homes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Fresh Food Factor and our partner organization—Stoney Point Farm.
While on the farm they planted onions and peppers, organized the barn and harvested eggs. The students worked together to complete tasks, and a participant from St. Mary’s even taught the Cornell students techniques he had learned from the farmer.But the connections grew as the students worked at Fresh Food Factor. They cited their amazement at the volume of meals produced for at-risk youth— over 2,000 a day—and the sheer amount of effort necessary to pull it all off.
The students made it clear that their affinity for volunteerism was rooted in an awareness of the real challenges facing our communities and the potential for growth. Heidi, a site leader from Rice, told us that she wants to be an advocate for social change, and to do that she knew that she had to couple academics with real world experiences.
The students from St. Mary’s credited their school’s culture with instilling altruistic values in the student body. Group leader Bridget and her team from Cornell wanted be involved with an organization that has a broad reach and could encompass their interests in after-school enrichment, civic engagement and sustainable food service. For them, Volunteers of America was a perfect fit.
To learn about volunteer opportunities for your group, contact Logan Ebel at (504) 486-8699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
April is National Volunteer Month, and throughout the month we have been recognizing the contributions of our dedicated and selfless volunteers. While Volunteers of America is comprised of nearly 500 paid staff members, community volunteers are an indispensable part of the work we do. We are fortunate to have a partnership with the Americorps VISTA program which provides organizations with volunteers who make year-long, full-time commitments to serve on specific projects to enhance the organizational, administrative, and financial capacity of nonprofits. Gabryone “Gabby” Newman is currently serving as our Development VISTA Volunteer. In our Q & A below, Gabby shares what motivates her to volunteer in her own community, and what she’s learning during her term with Volunteers of America:
Q: Why did you choose to serve as a VISTA with Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans?
A: As a native of New Orleans, Louisiana, I wanted to serve in my own community, impacting the lives of ordinary people. My mother worked within the Human Services industry for 20 years. I wanted to transform lives and make a difference in the world like she did. Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans has given me that opportunity. As a Resource Development VISTA, I have expanded my volunteer/fundraising skills with one of New Orleans’ leading nonprofit organizations that focuses on moving underserved communities into self-sufficiency.
Q. What has been your favorite experience while working with Volunteers of Greater New Orleans?
A. My favorite experience has been preparing for the 2015 GolfStar Classic, our annual golf tournament which benefits our adoption program. Recruiting food and auction donations from businesses, hotels and restaurants was a challenging, yet exciting experience.
Q. From your time working with Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans, what have you gained so far?
A. I have learn new skills such as cultural competency, community outreach, event planning, database development and grant writing . Also, working within the nonprofit industry has opened up a secondary career option for me.
Q. What do your plans after finishing your VISTA term include?
A. Once my VISTA term is done, I plan on working for a nonprofit organization, radio/news station, or doing a second AmeriCorps VISTA term.
To Gabby and our many wonderful volunteers who do so much for our organization and our community: THANK YOU!
Sandra Smith, at age 63, attends many concerts and football games. She works as an usher at the Superdome, and her part-time occupation suits her lighthearted, helpful nature perfectly.
Sandra understands how important living independently is, so three days a week she travels to Volunteers of America’s senior adult living facility on Tulane Avenue to help “make life a little easier,” for those who she knows have already worked so hard.
Her call to action began when her mother, age 86, began needing help with fine motor skill tasks such as retrieving dishes or doing laundry. Sandra says that her mother has done a lot in her life and, in fact, still drives. But Sandra saw the opportunity to relieve her from small burdens so that her day ran more efficiently. Sandra’s belief is: since she can lend a helping hand, she will—so she turned to Volunteers of America to extend her reach. Now, she makes regular visits to residents’ apartments to share her smile and her time, assisting with things like ironing or simply wiping a table—small, thoughtful actions that make a big difference in the flow and enjoyment of a senior adult’s day.
Senior independent living often includes small aids like handrails or walkers; but, what is equally important is connection to others—the ability to help and be helped. So as February, which is National Senior Independence Month, continues remember the ones who have paved the way directly or indirectly for you, and do as Sandra does: lend a helping hand.
Are you inspired by Sandra’s story and want to get involved, too? Contact our Volunteer Coordinator, Logan Ebel at email@example.com or (504) 486-8699 to learn more about volunteering with us.
2015 has arrived, and no doubt you’ve made ambitious plans for the year to come. We know you’re going to be awesome this year! But, chances are, you were great in 2014 too! Did you, or someone you know, volunteer with us last year? Tell us about the experience. Write in with your story (or someone else’s) and we could feature you on our blog!
1) You’re a super hero! No matter how you helped, you have positively affected someone’s life.
2) Share the wealth! Your story will inspire others to do the same. Be an inspiration in 2015!
3) We all want to be happier and healthier! Studies have shone that volunteering increases your social, physical and mental capital, while it could also have positive implications for your career. Oh, and it’s fun and fulfilling.
4) Just taking the time to write the story will bring back all those good feelings! It will be almost as good as the real thing.
Email your story any time to firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy New Year!
P.S. Already feeling inspired to start doing good in the New Year?
Check out our website for opportunities as well as info on how to choose the best experience for YOU!
*If you’re a tad timid about sharing your personal story, no worries, Clark (or Clarissa) Kent! We’ll keep your true identity a secret upon request.
We are proud to share the story of staff member Lori Arceneaux North, LCSW, BACS. Lori serves as the Program Manager of our Adoption & Maternity Services program, and she is also an adoptive parent.
“Adoption has tremendously impacted my life on both a professional and a personal level. After working for Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans’ adoption program, my husband and I felt compelled to turn to adoption to begin our family. We soon became foster/adoptive parents with the state. Our daughter joined our family in 2010. We have since adopted her. Through my personal experience with adoption, this has driven me to help other children like my daughter who need a forever family of their own. Currently, I serve as the chair of the Louisiana Adoption Advisory Board, a non-profit that consists of adopted persons, adoptive parents, birth parents, and adoption professionals. We seek to promote understanding and education about adoption-related issues. Also, I’m the secretary of NOLA Hope, a local foster/adoptive parent support group. We support, educate and advocate for both foster and adoptive parents and for children in foster care too.
It’s been an incredible experience to see my daughter blossom over the last four years since she joined our family. Sadly, there are so many other children just like her in Louisiana that need the same opportunity to thrive in an adoptive family. We hope to expand our family again through adoption in a couple of years. This firsthand experience with adoption has helped me to become a better social worker and to better assist the people we serve in our program. I can draw on my personal experiences to better understand their perspectives and assist them on their individual adoption journey.”
As a licensed adoption agency and a respected pioneer in issues such as open adoption, Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans’ Adoption Program has united thousands of families over many decades. We place infants in adoptive homes, counsel birth parents and adoptive parents and reach out to both groups with a variety of helping services that range from crisis counseling for pregnant women to home studies for adoptive couples. To learn more, visit our website, email us or call (504) 835-3005.
You could be the lucky winner of a 2015 Mercedes CLA250 in our raffle benefiting our Adoption Program! It’s an amazing prize with a life-changing cause. Don’t miss out–get your tickets here.
Ed and Mary Ann Brannan of Mandeville, LA, made it a point when they retired to stay involved in their community. More than ten years ago they began volunteering through Volunteers of America’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), each pursuing opportunities that fit their individual interests and skills. They volunteer, on average, a combined twenty-five hours per week.
Ed dedicates time each week to our Faith In Action volunteer option, which focuses on transporting senior citizens who are unable to drive themselves to doctors’ appointments, grocery stores, and other essential errands and tasks. Ed happened upon this opportunity years ago when a neighbor asked him to fill in as a temporary volunteer while the neighbor was away. Ed agreed, and was soon hooked on the rewarding experience of serving others in need. He decided to continue transporting his fellow seniors, and over the years has made new and lifelong friendships with those he serves and their families.
Mary Ann enjoys serving as a volunteer in several capacities, including her RSVP assignment working as a hospice volunteer with St. Tammany Hospital Hospice. She currently visits with a particular hospice patient every week, sitting with the patient when family members need a break, and listening to the patient’s entertaining stories about her relatives. Mary Ann notes that although some may see hospice volunteering as challenging or sad, she sees it as a much-needed service that supports patients and their families during a most profound time of need.
The Brannans feel strongly that the personal benefits they receive from volunteering are significant. They have met a variety of interesting individuals through their volunteer work, and have made many friendships with those whom they’ve served throughout the years. A strong sense of personal fulfillment from their volunteer work is, in part, why they’ve both continued serving for over a decade.
Ed aims to encourage other seniors to volunteer and “experience the great things you get out of volunteering, as well as the many ways you can contribute.” He hopes that more seniors will become aware of the needs of the community and embrace the exceptional benefits that come from volunteering as a senior adult.
To learn more about our Retired and Senior Volunteer Program click here.
Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans is grateful for our partnership with the Americorps VISTA program, which provides nonprofit organizations like ours with talented volunteers who support capacity-building for the organization. We have been fortunate to have Emma Murray, our Development VISTA who hails from Lexington, Massachusetts, serving with us for the past year. Emma has made many behind-the-scenes contributions to numerous projects throughout her time with our organization. Emma wraps up her year-long term with Volunteers of America on July 18th.
Q: Why did you choose to serve as a VISTA with Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans?
A: “I thought it would be valuable work experience that I could take with me into a future career. I have always been drawn to human service work, and this position gave me the opportunity to see how one of New Orleans’ premier nonprofit human service providers recruits and distributes its resources in a way that effectively and responsibly supports multiple programs that benefit thousands of people.”
Q: What has been your favorite experience/part of working with Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans?
A: “Preparing for the GolfStar Classic, [our Adoption Program’s annual charity golf tournament]! The event supports a great cause, and I found the experience of recruiting food and auction item donations from community partners to be a challenging, yet rewarding one.”
Q: From your time working with Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans, what have you gained?
A: “I’ve gained a clearer understanding of what I am interested in doing professionally as well as new skills in grant writing, communication, and leadership.”
Q: What do your plans after finishing your VISTA term include?
A: “I will be attending graduate school at the University of Michigan to pursue a Master of Public Health degree.”