Every Day Is Christmas
Careers in Service Bring Full-Time Joy

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 24, 2006

Have you done your holiday duty already? Toys for needy children? Volunteering at the shelter? Checks for charities? It's that time of year, and most of us feel better when we know we've made someone's holiday just a little less lonely, hungry or deprived.

And then there are the people behind those efforts who work year-round to make people's lives, and Christmases, better. They forgo the big for-profit paychecks in favor of a life that feels more profitable.

Every Christmas Day, the D.C. Jewish Community Center guides almost 1,000 volunteers to various efforts around the city. It holds a blood drive, paints a shelter and holds parties for those who might not be celebrating otherwise. And for five years, Lavinia Balaci has been the woman behind the efforts.

The Romanian native knew while she was in college that she wanted one of those jobs that make a difference. She started out working for a grant-making human rights foundation, helping to educate Romanian academics and students about study-abroad opportunities. The goal was for them to bring their experiences back to serve Romania. But, she said, the job's rewards felt as if they took too long. "I wanted to see more of an immediate result of my work," she said.

After she came to the United States at age 24 for a conference, she met the director of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service at the Jewish Community Center, who offered her the job she has now.

"I always wanted to do some form of social marketing or community outreach that I could feel could impact somebody's life in a good way and that was tangible in that impact," she said last week, while trying to ignore ringing phones, e-mails and a pile of paperwork for just a few minutes. "And in a sense, I wanted to see people's lives enriched by giving of their time and resources to make a difference."

The biggest day of her year, which may be odd for a Jewish woman, is Christmas. This is when her year-long efforts culminate in a well-choreographed day of giving and volunteering in the District, affecting more than 10,000 needy people.

Her "personal and humanistic" job is not just about the rewarding feeling she has when her work is accomplished. It's about providing something for others. "That's a very Jewish concept. That's why we've taken this, the biggest holiday in the Western Hemisphere, and turned it into a day of service," she said. "We can really serve on that day, instead of just going out to get Chinese and a movie."

So for all of those people who constantly ask how they can leave their for-profit job for a less profitable, more change-the-world career, here's Balaci's take:

"It was a conscious decision, my choice to join this part of the world that is concerned with finding a solution to problems on a daily basis," she said.

"On a daily basis, I know I'm feeding 1,000 people. If that's all I do, I am making a difference. My advice is whoever is looking to change jobs and get a job in a humanitarian or nonprofit field, do it. There's so much need around and so many things we need to work on and improve."

That is just what Franciena Fowler-Turner was looking for when she had an epiphany years ago. "It's like you aren't doing enough. I said 'What do I want? Money or fulfillment?' " She took fulfillment.

More than 20 years ago, Fowler-Turner left a job as an accountant's assistant with the Washington Lung Association to become director of volunteer programs and services at St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home in Hyattsville. The center is home to more than 40 children and to mothers from their early teens to mid-20s and their babies who need a safe, welcoming place to stay and learn parenting skills. It serves as an orphanage, emergency shelter for abused children, adoption agency, training center for young mothers and day-care program.

When Fowler-Turner saw the job advertisement in this newspaper two decades ago, she knew she had to apply. She loved working with children and wanted to help people directly. But she was almost passed over. Her interviewers were concerned that the salary would be too low, the job not high-powered enough, and that she wouldn't stay long. But with her marketing and public relations background, along with a certification in volunteer management, she knew she could help, and St. Ann's agreed.

She was looking for fulfillment, and she found it. And St. Ann's found an organized go-getter. She used her business contacts to construct the first organized volunteer efforts at the home and to help raise money.

Her talent is used to oversee volunteer recruitment and get donations. She spends much of her time speaking at local colleges and corporations about St. Ann's needs. Some of those colleges have organized volunteer programs or scholarships for St. Ann's mothers. Fowler-Turner said some of St. Ann's moms have graduated from Trinity, Catholic University, Georgetown University, George Washington University and Bowie State University.

At Christmastime, she works the hardest to get her companies, volunteers and new groups to help make the mothers' and children's Christmases better. Most of the organizations she speaks with throw parties for the children, complete with presents. Others donate money to bring the kids out to recreational and other events. "They get an abundance," said Fowler-Turner, who has 129 active volunteers and up to 400 volunteers throughout the year.

But dropping everything to work for a nonprofit such as St. Ann's isn't something everyone can do, she warned. She is still paid in the low $30,000s, and as a single mother of two children, now grown, that was not always easy. She has always held down one or two part-time jobs so she could hang on to this one. "I may not have been paid much money. . . . I thought I was meant to be here, to use my talent," she said.

Her advice to those who think they want to move into a world like hers: "Do something that you really know you want to do. There can't be an issue about money. We have just as much qualified people as anyone in the corporate world, but there are less funds here. So make sure it's an interest and not just a moment."

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If you can't make that good work a full-time career, or don't want to, no problem. There is always time for a good cause after your day of paper pushing is over. Including tomorrow: Come to the D.C. Jewish Community Center to help prepare meals for 1,000 homeless people or help paint a shelter. (Hurry up, registration for tomorrow's efforts at http://washingtondcjcc.org/volunteer ends this afternoon.)

You can read more about St. Ann's -- and what the home needs -- at http://www.stanns.org.

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