Finding Reward in Getting Uncomfortable

by Gray Davis, a Hands On Charlotte volunteer

In 2010, I was “retired” by the Great Recession when my building industry job disappeared. It’s hard to do nothing and feel good about yourself, so I began volunteering with Second Harvest Food Bank. After a bicycle accident and knee replacement surgery made it unfeasible to continue, I reached out to Hands On Charlotte in search of something new.

Doug Macomb at Hands On Charlotte challenged me to get out of my comfort zone by tutoring kids. I don’t have grandkids, so I wasn’t used to interacting with children anymore. But five months into volunteering, the students enjoy my help and I’m getting as much out of the experience as they are.

In Charlotte, you’re not going to make it without a good education. If you have language barriers, the odds are stacked against you even more. So the Study Buddies program at Learning Help Community Center in south Charlotte helps immigrant and refugee children, particularly from low-income families.

I volunteer two nights a week helping elementary school students with their homework. Some are behind their peers, but they’re very eager to learn – they want to be there.

Others want to get ahead, like a 3rd grader from Cameroon. She’s amazing, speaks both French and English. She’s reading at a 5th grade level, but her parents encourage her to participate to advance further.

Volunteering has really given me a spark. I like the mental exercise, it keeps me sharp. And Hands On Charlotte and the Learning Center are very organized – I’m impressed with their focus and their mission.

At 68, I still have a lot to contribute to this community, and volunteering allows me to do that. Being able to share my knowledge has been extremely rewarding, and I encourage everyone to get out of their comfort zone too.

To learn more about the Study Buddies program or other volunteer opportunities, contact Hands On Charlotte’s Doug Macomb at

Making a Difference, One Child at a Time

At Hands On Charlotte’s volunteer project, Study Buddies – South Charlotte, kids get to practice their reading skills, they get helped with homework, and they also make connections with others so that they feel supported and empowered to succeed. Learning Help Centers of Charlotte provides one-on-one support for kids in Title 1 schools as well as a place where the kids can make friends with others who share a passion for learning.

Each week, the students begin the evening outside playing soccer and other games, and then they come together inside for a group activity and snack. Volunteers at this project are then paired up with one kid and together they work on homework or reading improvement. One regular volunteer at the project, Gray Davis, says “It is rewarding to see kids have the ‘aha’ moment when they get something that they have been trying to learn.” Gray admits that at first he was reluctant to sign-up for a tutoring project, but now he says “Volunteers should not let their lack of experience with tutoring kids keep them from trying this.”

Each week, regular volunteers are matched up with the same students if possible, which helps the two to work together better. This program strives to make a difference in kids’ academic lives, but it is also about mentoring and connecting with the students. Everyone has something to offer, even if it has been many years since they were in school.

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Gen’s Story: Math is Fun!

I sure wish I’d had a math tutor like Gen Mezinskis when I was young. Gen is a Volunteer Leader for HomeWork Hounds at Sugar Creek, and we recently sat down over breakfast to talk.

Gen, short for Genevieve, has been involved with Hands On Charlotte for over 10 years. She was immediately drawn to the flexibility of the program, both with the variety of projects offered and the schedule of times available. In her first year volunteering, she tried a range of activities to see what she liked, including bingo and Special Rollers. She found she was drawn to tutoring, and she became a Volunteer Leader when an opportunity arose the next year. She’s been helping Charlotte-area students ever since.

Gen tutoring a student at Sugar Creek Library

At her project volunteers tutor children who range primarily from kindergarten to 5th grade. The project averages ten to 15 students per session, and Gen tries to ensure one-on-one assistance to the kids whenever possible. The project could always use more volunteers, and Gen recommends it to those looking for a first-time HOC opportunity, provided they like working with kids and are OK helping with homework.

It’s easy to see why the children would be comfortable working with Gen. She’s obviously smart, but manages to explain concepts in very understandable terms. The same children often attend tutoring year after year, a tribute to how valuable they and their parents find the program. As one of the benefits of being a long-time volunteer, Gen says it’s been great to see some of the students grow up through their continued involvement in the program.

For years, Gen was the only Volunteer Leader for the weekly project, and she’s thankful to now have a co-leader. Since she enjoys it so much, she often volunteers even when she’s not leading the event, ever committed to helping kids become more successful in school. Now that she has a co-leader, she says she may even try out some different HOC projects again this year.

I asked the Ohio native how she first became interested in volunteering. She went to a camp earlier in life where she found the counselors to be very helpful, making all the campers feel important and cared for. She wanted to help make others feel the same way, and started volunteering at an early age with projects like being a “candy striper” at a hospital.

As to why she chose to volunteer as a tutor, Gen says she’s always done well with math and science. After attending a week-long computer camp for youths, she was hooked. She earned a college degree in computer engineering, which helps in her role managing consumer data in a marketing department for one of Charlotte’s big banks. If she weren’t working at the bank, Gen would like to create software to help people manage chronic diseases.

I asked Gen what she does for fun when not working or volunteering – it turns out, a lot! She’s an avid runner, now having finished 4 marathons. She did the first with her father, an inspiration – he plans to do a marathon in every state, and is already up to 11. She runs every morning, even in the winter cold. Someday she wants to do a marathon with her father in Hawaii, which sure sounds a lot more pleasant! She’s also a skier. She and her long-term boyfriend have tackled some of the toughest ski mountains out west, though they also enjoy local skiing whenever they get the chance.

Gen’s also a world traveler. She recently went to Italy for two weeks with friends, and got to meet some of her boyfriend’s extended family. She has a brother who lives in Latvia, where her father is originally from, and plans to get back there soon. New Zealand is also on her wish list.

As a fellow Volunteer Leader, I asked Gen for any tips that have helped her long-term success in that role. First, she said, is to make sure the volunteers feel comfortable. Sometimes they aren’t sure how to solve a homework problem, so Gen can help them work out a solution as part of a team effort. Second is to help the students build confidence that they can do the work. Kids will occasionally want the tutor to solve the problems for them, which obviously doesn’t aid the student for the future. By showing they can learn to do it themselves, the kids feel encouraged to tackle more problems on their own. Last, she always asks volunteers for feedback, especially those who are new to HOC. That helps her ensure they’ve had a positive experience, and that she can continue to improve in her role.

As someone for whom math was not their strongest subject, I sure wish I had sought tutoring help from someone knowledgeable when I was young. Lucky for the kids of Charlotte, Gen and the volunteers she leads are there to help. To have a Volunteer Leader as smart, committed and worldly as Gen, Hands On Charlotte is pretty darn lucky, too.

— Ryan Sullivan, Volunteer Leader for Saturday Morning Live

Jacqualyn’s Story – Pet Visits, You Can See the Difference

It takes all kinds to volunteer, to take time from our schedules and give back to others and try to make the world just a little bit better than when we woke up in the morning. In my time with Hands On Charlotte I’ve met volunteers from all walks of life and of all shapes and sizes. However, furry and four legged was a first as I met Dixie the undisputed star of Pet Visits at White Oaks Manor. Dixie and her recently adopted Golden brother named Gabe are gorgeous Golden Retrievers owned by the straight talking Jacqualyn Levin, a Volunteer Leader for White Oaks since August 2015. She actually started volunteering for HOC in Feburary 2014. Jacqualyn is the mother of two very successful daughters and is an avid world traveler. Having visited a host of countries she’s an intelligent and well versed woman. Jacqualyn  explained the details of the White Oak Pet Visits: “It’s hard to get started for some people” she explained, “You go to White Oaks and it can be discouraging. The environment can be a bit depressing.” White Oaks is a skilled nursing facility for the elderly and adults with disabilities. Hands On Charlotte volunteers, along with their well behaved dogs, visit with the residents. It’s an often overlooked population and one in need of positive experiences. “You can see the difference it makes to them. They don’t get a lot of visitors so when we come with the dogs it means a lot.”

Pet Visits Star, Dixie

Jacqualyn explained that she also volunteers at Plantation Estates Assisted Living as well as the Food Bank but considers White Oaks her home project. “The relationship we have with the staff and residents is just great. They know us and we have developed a good relationship with them.” Dixie I’ve been told by numerous sources remains the belle of the ball at White Oaks. A friendly empathetic canine Dixie has learned what each particular resident wants most from a furry visitor.”She knows what to do” Jacqualyn tells me “One resident she just comes up real quick and puts her head and paws on her bed and gets a quick pet. With another it’s something else. Dixie has been doing this for over two years and is a natural.”

In terms of what motivates Jacqualyn to do this project it’s pretty simply explained “Dixie loves it. She gets excited when we turn the corner towards White Oaks. Of course I enjoy meeting all the volunteers and their dogs. I’m not stopping any time soon.” Dixie and Gabe are both rescues from Golden Retriever Rescue of Charlotte or GRRCC, which Jacqualyn is also active with. “GRRCC has a link to HOC on their facebook page in hopes that some Golden owners will see it and consider pet visits with HOC. What should be very appealing for dog owners is that the dogs do not need to be certified therapy dogs.  They just need to be friendly with other dogs and enjoy getting lots and lots of hugs and kisses.

  • Ben Burton is a Hands On Charlotte Volunteer Leader for The Relatives project.



By: Alexa Catherman

I am happy to say that even after over an hour of continuous play at the Regency Retirement Home in Pineville, my flawless Bingo record still stands. To this day, I have never won a game of Bingo. Ever. Nevertheless, my experience volunteering at Hands On Charlotte’s “Game Night – Pineville” event was decidedly positive. My table definitely scored the most bingos, even if I wasn’t able to contribute any wins of my own. The folks at my table kept the game interesting by making little jokes, ragging on each other, and just adding a little more drama to the game (let’s be honest, Bingo is not exactly an edge-of-your-seat kind of game.) I enjoyed myself, despite my incompetence; it was nice to help make the residents smile.

Calling All Pets!

untitledBy: Alexa Catherman

Have you every felt bored, staying at home all day, eating kibble? Do you want to do something more with your life than sniff every corner of your house, again? The solution is simple: Volunteer with your human! Hands On Charlotte offers several different volunteering opportunities for pets and their owners. You can go to new places and make people’s day at the same time!

Bentley and Dixie (see photo) volunteer with us regularly and they are nearly celebrities at White Oaks Manor. All the elderly folks love having them come visit and both dogs love it too! You can make a difference in the world, even if you are just a pet. What are you waiting for? Get your human to sign both of you up today!

How to Have Fun and Help Others at the Same Time

taboo_02By: Alexa Catherman, Hands On Charlotte

Yesterday evening, I went to a volunteer opportunity with Hands On Charlotte called Thursday Night Fun, and the title did not deceive. It took place at Florence Crittenton Services, a facility that provides a home, prenatal care, and life training to pregnant and at risk young women. Our job as volunteers was simple, to play games and have fun with the ladies who lived there. After much debate over which game to play, we ended up playing several hilarious rounds of Taboo. It was nice to see so much laughter and happiness in that activity room because I know many of those girls are going through hard times and have uncertain futures. In fact, I think some of the residents were more joyful at first than the volunteers. I can only hope we managed to brighten their day as much as they brightened ours.

Great Advice from Mom

The morning of August 20 I stopped for gas ahead of a nearly 4-hour drive. Shortly after I started pumping gas a man pulled up behind me and said, “Can I ask you a question?” I knew what that meant and was not in the mood for a story. I could see the man had on sweat pants and a cell phone clip with no cell phone. He asked if he could borrow a few bucks for enough gas to drive a few miles down the road.

I told him to wait a minute and after I filled my tank I went over to put in my credit card and gave him the gas nozzle. As he was filling up he explained that he had lost his wallet and he needed to get to the hospital since his wife had kidney cancer. Once he finished, I said “well you have no idea where I’m going.” Then I explained how my mom was under hospice care and I was driving down to Southport to say goodbye. The man looked at me and said, “I had no idea you were dealing with that.” We shook hands and wished each other well. That brief encounter changed my outlook on the day, since I could not imagine his pain.

2010With my parents, Lorraine and Doug Sr. in 2010

In early 2014, Mom encouraged me to seek help to deal with my divorce. A few people recommended DivorceCare, a 10-week class. My mom knew I would make excuses on why I shouldn’t go and made me promise to attend at least 3 times before giving up. As an introvert with GAD (general anxiety disorder) just about every social situation makes me uncomfortable. Over the years, I’ve learned how to manage those feelings although they have not gone away. After attending the first session I called mom and explained why that group was not a good fit but went back and eventually looked forward to attending. It proved to be an extremely helpful and rewarding experience.

If I had one wish for all the new Hands On Charlotte volunteers it would be the same: that they try at least 3 projects before giving up. Mom knew that helping others did not always work out but that never stopped her from trying. Both my parents experienced less than ideal childhoods. As young adults they were each responsible for an older sibling with a developmental disability. When I was 5, my grandmother suffered a massive stroke and spent the next twenty years in a nursing home. When I was 10 my parents decided to adopt a child. My brother had lots of issues. As a teen he decided he no longer wished to be part of the family. Under New York state law he successfully sued my parents. They had no issues providing for his care until he turned 21 but could not understand why he was not required to attend school or seek help for his issues. Even though many of these experiences did not work out in her favor, Mom never stopped trying or believing in the good of others

One of the things that bothered her most about having cancer was that she was unable to volunteer at the hospital thrift store and food bank. She never stopped putting others concerns ahead of her own. In early August, when her oncologist suggested she look into hospice care, Mom said she did not want to die at home. When my sister asked why, Mom replied that she didn’t want to make it more difficult for us to sell her house.

As usual Mom enjoyed hearing the story about how I helped a stranger. She died peacefully a few days later. When I looked at my credit card statement I saw that man at the gas station took exactly $3 worth of gas. Best $3 I ever spent.

  • Doug Macomb, Hands On Charlotte’s program director wrote this post in memory of his mother Lorraine Macomb (Nov. 12, 1944 – Aug. 26, 2016).

Clothe Your Neighbor at Crisis Assistance Ministry

By: Alexa Catherman, Hands On Charlotte

Last Wednesday, I volunteered at Crisis Assistance Ministry in Charlotte to sort and hang clothes with other Hands On Charlotte volunteers. Crisis Assistance Ministry helps people in a financial crisis through several different means, including a free clothing store, and the majority of the work the do is volunteer driven. alexa-at-crisis-1

I arrived that afternoon to an impassioned speech by the staff about who they were and what they did. The rest of the Hands On Charlotte team and I were assigned to hanging clothing that would then go into the free store to help people in need. Though the work was difficult and involved a lot of bending over to reach the bottom of the clothing bins, it was made so much better by the cheerfulness of the Crisis Assistance Ministry staff. They were welcoming, gave clear instructions, told us exactly how much we helped them through our volunteer work, and made the whole process fun. My favorite part was knowing that I was helping to make a difference in someone’s life and allowing them dignity in a tough time by making sure the clothes they had were good quality and weather appropriate. I would never have heard about Crisis Assistance Ministry without Hands On Charlotte.

  • Alexa is a new Ready Corps member, serving with HOC through August 2017

This project also takes place on Saturday mornings where it’s called Saturday Morning Live.

Ryan’s Story – Sometimes you wear a Superman costume with a TuTu for fun

I had a chance to sit down recently with a Volunteer Leader named Ryan Sullivan and I have to say I was impressed. The Connecticut native leads one of the two Crisis Assistance Ministry projects, which for many of us is our first volunteer opportunity with Hands On Charlotte. A fun and energizing opportunity, Crisis Assistance Ministry provides clothing to Charlotte families free of charge, as well as financial assistance to those in urgent need. It’s also next door to Second Harvest Food Bank, another favorite of HOC volunteers. Ryan, a tall glass of water by any measure, began his tenure with Hands On Charlotte in 2006 and has been a Volunteer Leader since 2009. Aside from his work with Crisis Assistance Ministry, Ryan has also led events for our annual Hands On Charlotte Day and has for years been the Fundraising Chair for the Relay for Life of Ballantyne. There, he dressed as Superman and led another great group of HOC volunteers. (Why the tutu in the picture? Cancer doesn’t discriminate by gender.) In addition to this, the multi-talented man is part of the funny local improv comedy troupe Now Are the Foxes (check your old Saturday Night Live tapes if you’re missing the name reference there, sports fans).


Crisis Assistance Ministry is, as Ryan states, “A great volunteer project in that it lets participants immediately see the amount of work they’ve done. They can tell the impact they’re having then and there, and take something positive away from it.” I’m inclined to agree. The sorting and organizing of clothes, while not the most glamorous work, is still very fulfilling and—given the fun group of folks who show up for this event—you can have a great time working with a group towards a goal together. I strongly recommend it for beginning volunteers who want to see if the call to service is something they truly want to invest in. It’s also a good time for veterans who have some time to give to a very worthwhile cause.

An early life-changing injury to his brother gave Ryan his perspective on the world and the troubles that plague it. “You can’t solve every issue, but you should at least try to help address the ones you can,” he explains when I ask him why he volunteers so much of his time helping others. “I feel when you’ve been given blessings in life, it’s only right that you give back,” he mentions, as we begin talking about his life and motivations for volunteering. Engaged to a beautiful woman and employed by a financial planning software company that’s also very charitably inclined, Ryan certainly has a lot going for him. Having studied abroad and traveled the country extensively, he has a good view of the world. He also has, I can attest, a very healthy appetite for excellent BBQ and perhaps the best taste in music I’ve encountered among any volunteer I’ve met so far. We’ve been trading songs back and forth since meeting and giving each other new ideas on some genres.

Ryan and I found we had an unusual amount in common over the course of destroying our plates of BBQ, ribs, and pulled pork….ok, maybe the most obvious is we have large appetites and can put away the food. In addition, though, we’ve both kept busy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. While I sit on a scholarship committee, my good friend Ryan volunteers leading public speaking workshops for the Center for Leadership Development. When asked, Ryan stated, “It’s important to help set the volunteers and leaders of tomorrow off on the right foot today. The early college years are some of our most developmental and learning to find one’s voice early is truly a gift.” I couldn’t agree more. Very often we focus on younger children when it comes to instilling the importance of service, and while that’s clearly important we should not overlook the value of guiding our young adults along a positive path as well. Our last common trait is that, while we’re both very busy—and who isn’t these days—we find time to volunteer through HOC on a regular basis. Ryan and I both encourage people to use HOC’s easy online calendar to sign up at least once a month and to make volunteering a habit.

Ryan personifies exactly what Hands On Charlotte looks for in a Volunteer Leader. Well organized and possessing a passion to give back, Ryan has been a real asset to our organization for a decade. We can only hope his love for giving back and the time he dedicates to helping others survives as he prepares to engage in one of the greatest challenges to free time known to man: Marriage. Congratulations, buddy – you two are going to be great!

  • Ben Burton is a Hands On Charlotte Volunteer Leader for The Relatives project.