When I was 13 years old and still in high school, I had no idea what it meant to be successful. I thought success meant studying hard, listening to the teachers and reading textbooks. “No volunteering or socializing needed,” I confidently told my mother.
My mother didn’t say a thing; she just smiled her sweet smile. That smile totally confused me, but I would find out later what it meant.
When I first arrived in the United States and settled in Pleasant Hill, California, I had a single focus on my studies. But that began to change when my grandfather, a successful businessman in Solo, Indonesia told me something important. “Success comes from helping people and from socialization,” he said.
About that time, I learned of a non-profit organization called the American Red Cross from my friend Kevin.
The local Red Cross blood services office is in downtown Pleasant Hill, not far from where I live. On my first visit to the office I met the volunteer coordinator, Mandy, a 60-year-old woman with curly hair. Mandy was very kind, helpful and friendly. She was delighted when I asked her to make me a volunteer. “The more people the better,” she told me.
On my first day as a Red Cross volunteer, Mandy patiently trained me by showing a video that told how the Red Cross was established, what volunteers do and how to sign up for shifts. She also showed me where I would work (the front desk) and led me to the canteen where I would replenish munchies, clean up the area, keep the refrigerator filed with juices and keep an eye on people after they donated blood.
I thoroughly enjoyed my volunteer job because every aspect of it was new to me. Despite having a lot of school homework, I made my time at the Red Cross a priority, often spending seven hours at a time there. The Red Cross was my second home.
I learned how to socialize with donors, learned about the American culture, which is very different from my native Indonesia, and learned how to manage my time and solve problems.
One Sunday, for example, I was on duty at the front desk when an elderly homeless woman came to the office. She wore smelly clothes, carried a suitcase and wanted to be taken to the Berkeley Senior Center.
I had no idea what to do. She kept grumbling about her family and her journey.
“Be patient, there must be a solution,” I told her calmly. The nurses and I finally were able to persuade the Senior Center transportation department to pick her up and take her to the center.
About a year after I became a Red Cross volunteer, I met Rhonda Davis, the new volunteer coordinator. Rhonda had black curly hair, wore glasses and was very nice. At first I thought she was overly fierce and strict and a strong disciplinarian, and I was scared because Rhonda insisted I do my work without any mistakes. I had no idea why she treated me this way. Over time, however, it became clear to me that Rhonda was just helping me realize that I needed to dedicate my time to other people, not to myself.
I have now volunteered for more than 250 hours, and Rhonda presented me with the Gold Presidential Award, signed by President Obama. It is the most precious certificate I have ever had. I made a promise to myself that I will always remember what it means to me. I also decided that Rhonda is the best volunteer coordinator ever.
Since earning the Gold Presidential Award, I have continued to be faithful to the Red Cross and my volunteer activities. And I encourage everyone to care for other people by joining the American Red Cross as a volunteer or a donor.
In my case, not only have I learned the value of giving to others, I have learned how to better manage my time and how to socialize with others. As an immigrant, the experience has also helped me learn more about the American culture.
Mostly, though, I now know what was behind my mother's smile those many years ago. I have learned that the more I care for others, the more successful I am.
Jim Mallory, who like Vinsen Arya is a Red Cross volunteer in the San Francisco Bay Area, lent very helpful editorial support to Vinsen's volunteer story.
Caption: Vinsen Arya of Pleasant Hill proudly displays a letter he received from President Obama and an accompanying certificate, recognizing his outstanding volunteer service to the American Red Cross.