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In the Service of Others

Thu, 04/27/2023 - 14:55
Linda Child, left, the librarian at the Springs Library, and Anne Foster, a volunteer, stand in front of a portrait of Elizabeth Ashton Parker Anderson, who gifted her home to the community.
Gianna Volpe

The Springs Library is an institution soaked with the spirit of giving, so it's fitting that the building itself was a gift to the community, from the artist Elizabeth Ashton Parker Anderson. Entirely volunteer-run under the charter of the Springs Historical Society, it's misunderstood by some as simply being a place filled with old books, but that's not the case at all.

 Linda Child, a librarian there, will be the first to tell you that musty is a "must-not" when it comes to which books are allowed to stay on the shelves. Ms. Child will speak of dedication to readers, at times setting aside a perfect recommendation for a dedicated patron or even buying books outside the collection. She'll tell you she'd kill for a 'tween to peruse the young adult section, and she will, very likely, make you laugh.

 Hers is just one of the many faces of dedication to community that speak to a kind of altruistic giving that Dr. Stephen Post, director of Stony Brook Medicine's Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics, says is the mark of someone who stands to a live a longer, more fulfilling, and happier life.

 "There's an endless list of benefits that are well studied," Dr. Post told The Star.

 He followed up with an article he coauthored for the American Journal of Health Promotion, titled "It's Good to Be Good," linking volunteerism to lower mortality rates, especially in older adults, as well as better blood pressure and sleep, and a sense of well-being across the age spectrum. The only caveat: In order to activate such benefits, one's giving must come from a selfless place.

 "There's a myth that everything is transactional, and that doesn't work," said Dr. Post. "It's not about a payback mentality; you have to have a consciousness of being generous."

 If you want to see this idea at work, look no further than the last of the 12 steps designed by Alcoholics Anonymous to help people stay sober — the one centered around helping others. "Just by being engaged in that emotional and active dynamic, you, first of all, avoid falling further into the vortex of hostility, bitterness, rumination, and all the kinds of things you're trying to get rid of in the fourth step, when you're trying to make apologies and amends to somebody you've damaged, but the helping behavior is . . . also a way of getting the mind off the self and the problems of the self," Dr. Post explained.

 As Mahatma Gandhi would say, "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."

 Anne Foster has been finding herself at the Springs Library for 30 years now. She isn't sure just when she moved back to her hometown — 1992 or '93 — but she does remember that Springs residents couldn't, at the time, use the East Hampton Library because they didn't pay taxes for it as they had when she was growing up, and do today. 

 Ms. Foster returned here to help her mother out after retiring from her job as an office assistant for the Dominican Sisters in Wainscott. At 91 years old, she sees the three days per week she spends volunteering at the Springs Library just as she sees her regular exercise routine -- as vital to maintaining her quality of life.

 The days she spends minding the desk or organizing chaos in the upstairs archive space are not a waste, but an investment. A choice. "Sociability is so important," Ms. Foster told The Star. "My mom was very shy, and when her friends died -- they were very close-knit -- she just sat at home drinking tea all day long and died of depression at 86." 

 By comparison, Ms. Foster, at 91, is still driving and still growing -- a fearless, technology-proficient powerhouse who is known to run circles around the other volunteers, especially as it pertains to computer skills. Ask her about that and she'll smile and respond, "I manage and I do my exercises so I can continue."

 Pushing outside of the insular Three Mile Harbor community in which she grew up, to develop new friendships with other volunteers and librarians at the Springs Library, is something she "absolutely" credits for living a long, healthy life, "especially when you live alone."

 Deanna Tikannen, 78, president of the Springs Historical Society and a member of Ms. Foster's fan club, agrees entirely that volunteerism is a powerful vehicle for extending and enriching one's life.

 "It's a gift to me," she said, speaking of her work with the historical society — she has been involved since its inception in 1975 — as well as with the Springs Food Pantry. "Being retired, I could very easily get lost being home all the time. It helps me get out and make new friends, helping somebody else by using my muscles and exercising. It's beneficial in every direction."

 The food pantry opened around the same time that Ms. Foster was moving back to Springs three decades ago, established by Betty Reichart and now directed by Ms. Reichart's 68-year-old daughter, Holly Reichart-Wheaton, who spoke not only to the crucial nature of the work, but the ways in which it enhances the lives of the volunteers.

 "We fed 313 families last week and close to 1,100 people on a Wednesday distribution," Ms. Wheaton told The Star. "It is unbelievable. We open at 3 p.m. and those cars start lining up at 2 p.m. outside the church, all the way down Old Stone Highway to the Springs School." And while the food pantry does ask a lot, physically, from volunteers, Ms. Wheaton said there are "quite a few" of them between 55 and 75 who she sees getting as much and more out of the time they give.

 "We laugh and joke amongst ourselves because everyone's got these Apple watches and are keeping track of their steps, and they'll say, 'I did 10,000 steps last Wednesday,' or 'I got 17,000 steps in,' because they're moving," Ms. Wheaton said. "You hear the volunteers talking and making dates to go to the dog park together or to go to the theater . . . when I think some of these people would not be doing any of that. So that's one way they're helping people in need while also helping themselves."

 Jim Lubetkin, the president of Meals on Wheels, calculated he has spent nearly 5,000 hours working for the organization, which he described as "some 75 women and men every year who show up to pack and deliver meals five days a week, 52 weeks a year. We're like any other nonprofit. We depend on volunteers. They're all local. They're mostly retired. And they volunteer for pretty much the same reason that I do. They believe in helping others, making a difference."

 If you're wondering what Dr. Post's prescription might be for you, you needn't attend his upcoming lecture at Columbia University (spoiler alert: he'll discuss the "Social Prescription" movement in the United Kingdom, where primary care doctors are encouraging patients to volunteer for, and connect with, local organizations). He'll likely suggest you volunteer two hours per week at a place and physical level of your choice — make that four hours if you're retired and so disposed.

 Gianna Volpe is an award-winning multiplatform reporter and host of WLIW-FM's weekday morning and midnight show, "The Heart of the East End." The show features music from all decades and genres, as well as interviews with people from all walks of life. All episodes are archived online at

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