The physical and mental health benefits of volunteering are widely documented. But, sometimes, giving back transforms our lives in ways we never imagined. Two volunteers share their remarkable stories of how volunteering changed them for the better forever.
Energetic, exuberant, and optimistic, Natalie Fikes, 40, is exactly what an empowerment coach should be. In 2019, she was volunteering each Monday at the City of Refuge, an Atlanta shelter for women who are homeless or who are sex trafficking survivors. She was leading her independent living class when she noticed a woman in the back of the room, shoulders slumped. Despite Fikes’ best efforts, the woman wouldn’t look at her. Then, Fikes asked the question that got her attention: “What if you’re tired of trying?”
The woman explained that she has lost her teeth and hair. She had also lost a breast due to Stage 3 metastatic breast cancer. Her doctor told her she had six months to live. “I don’t understand. I’ve done everything I was told to do. I’m a good person. I don’t know why this is happening to me,” the woman said.
“You haven’t lost your voice. What do you want?” Fikes responded. She learned that the woman’s name was Wilma Raines, “Ms. Wilma” to most. Fikes told her she would be there to support her.
But then Raines asked an unusual favor. She asked Fikes if she could use her weekend pass to spend the weekend at her home. Fikes discussed the request with her two sons, who agreed. That weekend kicked off a friendship that was life-changing for both of them. Fikes found out that Raines, like Fikes, was a track star in high school. She also found out how bad she felt about having no teeth and how devastated she was at the “death date”—the end of the “six months left to live” the doctor had declared.
Fikes made it her mission to help Raines make the most of whatever time she had left. She invited her to stay with her and her sons. She helped her get dentures. And she challenged her to a race—on her death date. Even though Raines had been weak from the rigors of cancer and its treatments, she began to work out every day to prepare for the race. She developed a following on social media who looked forward to her motivational story.
On the day she thought she might die, Raines ran the “Kick Cancer in the Face” race hosted at The City of Refuge, sponsored by the American Cancer Society. Cheered on by fans, she ran 100 yards. She won the race (even if it took a little help from her fans, who held Fikes back). Later, Fikes also took Raines on a trip to New York City. She sampled New York pizza, Junior’s cheesecake, and danced at a block party in Brooklyn. The renewed Ms. Wilma told Fikes it was the best experience of her life.
Raines died on July 21, 2019, more than 15 months after she was told she would die from cancer. In honor of her friend, Fikes has created a new facet to her career. She developed The Greater Purpose System ™ to help people answer the question that changed Ms. Wilma’s life: What do you want? The program helps people create a plan to get what they want in life.
“What started out as volunteering turned out to be a life changing experience for the both of us,” Fikes says.
When it comes to providing energy to the masses, Greg Hazle’s experience is deep. Before his retirement in 2017, his extensive corporate career spanned public utility, independent energy, mining and construction materials industries. He has held roles in corporate finance and also put his training in engineering to work and helped design power projects throughout the United States and Latin America.
Outside of his high-powered career, Hazle always found ways to give back. And, sometimes, others plotted those ways for him. In 2014, a board member from Boca Helping Hands (BHH), a local nonprofit, saw Hazle sing at the church they both attended. He asked around about Hazle and thought he’d be a good addition to the nonprofit’s board of trustees.
“All of this was happening without me knowing,” Hazle chuckled.
But once Hazle learned about the nonprofit’s work, he was onboard. BHH is a community-based nonprofit in Boca Raton, Florida. The organization provides food, medical, financial, and job-training assistance to help people meet their basic needs and become self-sufficient. Through various assistance programs, the nonprofit helps more than 27,000 people annually.
Despite his success in corporate America, Hazle always remembered his days growing up in Jamaica. He had seen the impact of poverty, homelessness, and hunger around him during this childhood. And while he lived in a place that had such a reputation for affluence and self-indulgence, he was keenly aware that there were people around him—even in a place like Boca Raton—who needed help. Over the next few years, Hazle became involved in many aspects of the organization.
As he prepared for his retirement at age 60, Hazle looked forward to a new consulting career. But, again, the team at BHH had other plans. When the executive director left around that time, Hazle agreed to step in and run the organization as an interim leader with the provision that a search firm would be retained to find a new leader. “Obviously, that’s not how it turned out,” he said.
Since then, Hazle has embraced the role wholeheartedly. He feels a renewed sense of purpose in his role. And even his two daughters, who are now adults, have told him that this role suits his personality and passions more than others he has held.
“The range of services that we provide gives you an opportunity to hear some very impactful stories about how the work that we do changes people's lives,” he said. “So, it just felt like a privilege that I was given this opportunity and late in my career to do what I consider to be more meaningful work than generating returns for shareholders.”