Army of altruists

Part of Perkins' success and spirit is due to the hundreds of volunteers who give a hand every year

A student and a volunteer in the back seat of a cab

A weekly cab ride blossomed into friendship for 16-year-old student Ronen and Perkins volunteer Maddie Freeman.

You don't need a teaching or clinical degree to make a difference at Perkins. You don't even have to be on the payroll.

No one knows this better than Mike Cataruzolo, head of theĀ Volunteer Program at Perkins School for the Blind, where he has witnessed countless transformational moments brought about by Perkins' exceptional volunteers.

And while Cataruzolo himself has logged years of dedication in the volunteer department, his deep respect and awe for the incredible power of volunteers first took root nearly four decades ago, when he worked as the head of the school's physical education and athletic program.

A first-time volunteer had joined Cataruzolo's swimming class, where she met a Lower School student who was terrified of going into the pool. On several prior occasions, the boy had cried and protested whenever he was encouraged to go near the water.

But that day, a remarkable thing happened.

The volunteer introduced herself to the student and the two forged an immediate connection. She shared her own love of swimming and talked about how much fun he would have splashing in the water. After a few minutes, the boy's body language began to relax. In time, he was willing to go over to the pool's edge and feel the cool water with his fingertips.

"This young lady was perfect with this kid," remembered Cataruzolo. "She had something special and made him feel comfortable. They just hit it off."

Before long, the student was confident enough to venture into the water and try a few strokes, while the volunteer remained by his side cheering him on.

"This kid was learning how to swim!" exclaimed Cataruzolo excitedly, recalling the seminal moment with as much enthusiasm as if it was yesterday. "It was the first time that I saw him smile."

The student gained more confidence and independence over the following weeks, and became a full participant in each lesson. He eventually joined his fellow classmates as they swam the width of the pool.

And, said Cataruzolo, it was all thanks to one volunteer who was able to make that initial connection.

"You don't have to have a tremendous amount of experience, technical knowledge or a college diploma to be a volunteer," he said. "She just had a certain sensitivity that blended with his needs, and he responded to her."

Volunteers have been a vital part of the Perkins community since the very beginning. During the 1800s, the founding director of Perkins, Samuel Gridley Howe, encouraged community members to get involved. Local women taught female students important social skills of the era, including how to host elegant tea parties. Other figures, such as legendary aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart volunteered in the music department and read to students in the 1930s.

Today, hundreds of volunteers annually make immense contributions across campus, donating their time, skills and tireless energy to a variety of programs and projects. Under the guidance of Perkins' expert teachers and staff, volunteers provide extra support in the classrooms and after-school study hall sessions. Others lend their voice-over talents behind a microphone, narrating audio books for the Perkins Library. Volunteers also provide administrative and clerical support, offer extra hands during essential fundraising events or assist community members who are blind or visually impaired while they shop for groceries or buy new clothes.

Big and small, all of these efforts strengthen the Perkins community and mission.

"In many cases, they are an integral part of many programs and help them to run smoothly," said Cataruzolo. "A good volunteer is worth their weight in gold."

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