Annette Aagard was in the middle of a bad week. She felt overwhelmed. She did not need one more thing to do. Then why was she rushing off to become—of all things—a volunteer?
A couple of months earlier it had seemed like a good idea. She had signed up to donate a few hours each week to Great Oaks Village, a residential school for abused children in Orlando, Florida. She had been through orientation to assist girls between the ages of six and twelve. And now she faced her first assignment—all alone.
As soon as she walked into the dorm at Great Oaks, she heard someone say, “Hey, the new volunteer’s here!” Several anxious, wide-eyed little girls ran up to her and asked, “Are you our new volunteer?” And someone said, “Better be good or she won’t talk to you!”
By the end of that first evening in March of 1989, Annette knew why she had rushed off to become a volunteer. She learned that the word volunteer is like magic to these youngsters. It means that for a little while, someone has come to be family; someone has come to give love.
Annette loves to be a “big sister” to the little girls. She loves to walk and talk with them. “I not only learn from the things they say, but from the quick and easy way they trust, accept, and believe,” she says.
She tells about one particular evening. It was very quiet—most of the girls were restricted to their dorm rooms. So she took one little girl, Stosha, outside. It had just rained and the air was clean and quiet. They rode bikes for a little while and later went to the playground.
Annette explains, “Stosha is small and energetic and talkative. She loves the monkey bars. She would go across the bars and then expect me to follow her, which I had a hard time doing! I asked Stosha if she was going to try and skip every other bar the next time. She said, ‘Nope, I’m not going to try, I’m going to do it!’ This incident reminded me of President Spencer W. Kimball’s motto, ‘Do it!’ Sometimes we find excuses and whine and say ‘if … , but … , maybe … ,’ when we just need to believe in ourselves and do it.”
“The little girls ask, ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Do you live in a house?’ ‘Do you have a mom (and a dad)?’ I usually take for granted that I live at home with wonderful parents, but not after the girls at Great Oaks remind me how really blessed I am,” says Annette.
“Some of the questions they ask scare me,” Annette says. “It hurts me to wonder what their lives are like. They are often curious about my mom and dad, asking if they’re nice or mean, or if they hit me when I do something wrong. I don’t know if I could handle the things these children have been through.”
Annette usually goes to Great Oaks during study period—between 6:30 and 7:30 P.M. She helps the girls with their homework or reading. Sometimes they play games or put puzzles together. She remembers one evening the dorm was in the middle of several crises.
Apparently, some of the girls had tried to run away. Another one was crying uncontrollably after a day in court. Two sisters, Denise and Linda, had just found out that their grandmother had died. “I took them outside,” says Annette, “and we just walked together. The girls were quietly crying. Soon, they started talking about how much they missed their grandma and especially how long it had been since they had seen their mother. They both felt better after our walk.”
Annette always looks forward to the time she spends at Great Oaks. And, yes, occasionally she feels as overwhelmed as she did that first evening in March of 1989. After all, as the middle child in a family of five, an accomplished pianist, a straight-A student involved with several honor societies and activities at her high school, and president of her Laurel class in the Conway Ward, Orlando Florida Stake, she’s learned she has to set priorities—and that she can’t possibly do everything.
But despite her many commitments, Annette says, “after I’ve been with the children at Great Oaks, I come away feeling fulfilled. They help me so much—sometimes more than I help them. My mom says I’m always happier after I’ve been there.”
Annette has written in a poem that these little girls “are a reflection of the Savior’s love, sent to brighten up the earth.” She says she has come to truly understand what Jesus means when he refers to the pure, sweet attributes in little children.
Since that first evening at Great Oaks, Annette has learned there is magic in the word volunteer for her as well as for the little girls. She says, “One time as I was leaving, seven-year-old Michelle, a cutie with two top front teeth missing, called out, ‘Goodbye, Annette! I love you!’ I looked back at her and said, ‘I love you, too!’ And then I thought, ‘I love every one of you!’”