Volunteers believe in time sharing

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Margaret Plevak | April 29, 2014

ELKHORN—Grant McMillin's volunteering efforts have run the gamut from manual labor to inspirational speaking. Among his many stints McMillin, 83, has wrestled--physically and logistically--with hauling a washer and dryer from a basement to a closet-sized first-floor spot in a home, tackled tons of tax forms for low-income residents who needed help, and spoken to numerous groups about his experiences as a prisoner of war in Korea. He's also taxied people to doctor's appointments, set up medical alert systems for seniors, managed events for the local Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, and even installed electrical wiring in some tight spots.

“Grant is amazing,” said Patti O'Brien, coordinator of Volunteer Connections, Inc., a Walworth County volunteer network whose volunteer projects include helping seniors and the disabled with home maintenance and repair. “He can fix anything.”

“He is a jack rabbit of all trades,” quipped Ann McMillin, Grant's wife.

Ann, 80, is no slouch either when it comes to volunteering. She calls bingo at a local nursing home, handles mailings and other work at Volunteer Connections,  sews an average of  about 35 colorful quilts a year for those in need, and makes hammocks for cats and kittens at Lakeland Animal Shelter.

April is Volunteer Month, and the McMillins are great examples of what a little time can accomplish in a community. The couple could be taking an easier and more traditional route to retirement, but for them, volunteering is a natural choice.

“Mostly you kind of do that stuff for yourself more than anybody else because you've got to stay active,” Ann said. “If you don't, you stay in that cotton-picking easy chair and you grow roots.”

It's hard to imagine either of them root bound. Grant, a farm boy who was born in central Wisconsin and grew up in Lake Geneva, is a former electrical engineer whose career included a stint at Parker Pen in Janesville.

“That's what this country was built on, really,” he said. “When we were growing up, people helped each other. They would get together and build barns. I remember when I was probably 15, going around with the threshing machine in the fall. Once one farmer was done with the harvest, we'd moved on to the next farm.”

Ann, who grew up living with her grandmother in Milwaukee during the waning years of the Great Depression, recalled wearing hand-me-down clothes as a fifth-grader from a deceased neighbor lady who was about her size.

“If your neighbor needed something and you had it, you got it. It was a time when you met your neighbors and talked to them,” she said.

When the McMillins moved into their Elkhorn home, they wanted a garden, but found their yard too shady. Their neighbors had space for a garden, but were hampered by health problems. So Grant started a garden in his neighbors' yard, did the weeding, watering and harvesting—and shared the produce with his neighbors.

“That's the kind of thing we've always done,” Ann said. “But today everybody is becoming an 'I.' There is no 'we.' And I think that's a shame.”

Some of Grant's volunteering involves sharing memories of his POW days. A Korean War veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart, Grant was a 20-year-old U.S. Army soldier in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in December of 1950 when his troop was captured by Chinese Communists.

Grant, who was shot in the ankle during the battle, said during the almost three years he spent in Korea as a POW, many of his fellow soldiers lost fingers, toes and feet because of  bitter cold temperatures, no warm clothes and a lack of medical care. He still speaks about his experiences to audiences ranging from VA employees to students at elementary and high schools around the state and in other parts of the country.

“I think even in the situation we were in, in the camps over there, you did something, whether it was finding food or cleaning up,” he said. “It convinced me the way to go is to stay on your feet and keep moving if you can.”

The McMillins said staying active through volunteering brings its own rewards, from a sense of satisfaction in a job well done to finding new friends.

“I wish more people got involved in volunteering,” Ann said. “They'd know volunteers get more out of the experience than even the people they help.”

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