President Obama has repeatedly called for Americans to participate in community service. We salute those who selflessly contribute their time, abilities and money to help those who are less fortunate. Behind the scenes, many of the less fortunate — some of whom are themselves beneficiaries of community services — are active volunteers.
Every week, I facilitate a writing class at Step Up on Second, a Santa-Monica-based organization that provides housing, meals and an array of support services to people living with severe mental illness. I have been impressed and inspired to find that, despite their own considerable personal challenges, most of our writers are active volunteers in the community. Marsha volunteers at the gift shop of a local hospital, Larry runs a bingo group at a seniors living facility, Alan writes and directs plays on Skid Row, Les teaches computer skills to people struggling with mental illness, Craig feeds the homeless at a local church. And the list goes on.
One of our writers, Jacob Ramsey, is a model of volunteerism. For the past 12 years, Jacob has been a leader, a teacher and source of inspiration for hundreds of people who have come through Step Up’s doors.
Jacob is a member and resident of Step Up. Since experiencing a mental breakdown in 1995, Jacob has been living with severe bipolar disorder. He also has muscular dystrophy, which significantly limits his mobility.
“I may be disabled, but that doesn’t mean I’m un-abled,” Jacob says.
Every week, Jacob teaches eight classes to support Step Up members in their life skills and recovery. He also serves on Step Up’s board of directors.
Jacob lives and breathes service to others. He constantly encourages and praises his fellow members for their progress, accomplishments, and most of all, for who they are.
“It’s amazing how a small compliment or a little encouragement can help build someone’s self-esteem,” says Jacob. “Many of the people at Step Up have been homeless or down and out for years. They’re accustomed to being stigmatized and shunned. Many of them haven’t heard a kind word for years. All people need encouragement and recognition.”
In 2001, Jacob began facilitating a weekly self-help support group called Words of Encouragement. As a textbook, he used the popular bestseller “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” Every week, the group would read an inspiring story from the book. Then Jacob would go around the table ask people what they took from the story.
The class became popular with Step Up members, so Jacob began adding other classes, including Positive Thinking, How to Tell Your Story, Schizophrenics Anonymous, Community Unity, Dealing with Our Hurts and a Poetry/Karaoke Workshop.
“When you’re lucky enough to meet Jacob, as I did on my first day at Step Up, it can transform how you feel about yourself,” said Daniel Concharty. “My relationship with Jacob has changed my life. The first time I attended one of Jacob’s classes, he changed my view of my life in one hour. I had been down for a long time and needed a lot of help. Jacob made me feel welcome and treated me with dignity. It made a huge difference in my assimilation into the Step Up community. I can’t say enough positive things about this great man.”
Every year Jacob, who is African American, pays tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King on his birthday by reciting the “I Have a Dream” speech in Step Up’s main hall. Jacob is also an ordained Baptist minister and often performs spiritual duties at Step Up, including counseling members and conducting memorial services for those who have passed on.
Asked why he is so dedicated to serving his community at Step Up, Jacob responded, “I came to Step Up in 1997 after a mental breakdown. I was at a low point in my life, crying hour after hour every day. Step Up met me where I was at. They provided me with shelter and sustenance. They helped me deal with my mental illness, reintegrate into the community and start living again. Now, I continue that tradition by giving back to others who face some of the same problems as me. It’s my life’s mission.
“In addition, serving others makes me feel good. Because of my bipolar disorder, I have unwanted feelings at times. Being of service helps chase away these feelings. Instead of focusing on myself and my problems, I focus on helping others. It is a ‘we moment,’ not a ‘me moment.’ I’ve tried a lot of other things to feel better about my situation, but serving others is the thing that helps me the most. I encourage everyone to reach out and volunteer. Not only will you make a positive difference for others, it will change your own life for the better. I guarantee it!”
Phil Glosserman is on the board of directors and a volunteer at Step Up on Second. For more information go to www.stepuponsecond.org.