Going beyond: Volunteers helping in as many ways as possible

HARLINGEN — Manuel and Maricela Olivo say they didn’t really see the need in the community until after they retired.

“When you’re young and busy, sometimes you’re blind to the needs of the community,” Manuel said. “Now, we see things beyond our own issues.”

Maricela added, “When we were working, we were too busy to notice there is a need in the community.

“Now, we come and volunteer and you notice all this need. Families come here who have no other place to go. And some are hungry.”

Maricela, 60, retired as a paraprofessional with the Harlingen school district in 2013. Her husband, Manuel, 64, principal at Jefferson Elementary School, retired a year later.

They soon decided they wanted to volunteer and chose Loaves & Fishes of the Rio Grande Valley, which has a dining hall and a homeless shelter.

They volunteer in the dining hall twice a week.

Beyond serving meals, they try to help in any way they can.

“The majority of people who come here really want somebody to listen, to listen to their concerns or the situation they’re going through,” Manuel said.

“I have plenty of time to do that. People will come and share their experiences and I try to at least offer them an ear and listen and, if I can, to provide words of encouragement.”

Not long ago, Maricela began to notice a young man who would come to the dining hall wearing the same old T shirt and dirty jeans and carrying a plastic grocery bag. That had been happening for months.

So she decided to buy him some new shirts and pants and a backpack to carry them in.

Asked why she did it, she simply said, “Because I’m a volunteer.”

But they both say they get as much, if not more, from the families they serve as they give to the families.

“People ask us why we do it. Sometimes, it’s more what they do for us. Sometimes we get more from them than what we can do for them,” Manuel said.

Maricela explained, “I enjoy serving them and greeting them and getting to know them. They are always so grateful for us serving them, that’s the reward.”

They say they were a little nervous when they first began volunteering because they didn’t know what to expect. But they were quickly calmed.

“We found a wonderful staff and we found good, friendly people who are just down on their luck for whatever reason,” Manuel said.

“Volunteering here shows us how blessed we are and now is our chance to give back.”