Retiree spreads cheer by volunteering
Ernestine Gibson, who has volunteered at Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services for the past 13 years, sees the effects of the recession on the faces of every family that comes to the agency in need of food or money for rent.
The hardest moments, she said, are when she has to tell an individual or family that she cannot help them.
"Sometimes the need is just too great and the money isn't there," said Gibson, 65.
Gibson, a New Carrollton resident who retired from the federal government in 1996, is one of the volunteers LARS relies on even more heavily during the holiday season. For the past six years, she has coordinated the organization's Adopt-a-Family program, which provides about 125 families in the Laurel area with Christmas gifts and Thanksgiving food baskets.
LARS Executive Director Nancy Graham said Gibson oversees both projects with help from only two other volunteers and sometimes works 40 hours during the holiday season while receiving only a small stipend.
"She's such a vital part of our agency," Graham said. "The work that she does would be the equivalent of what a paid employee would do."
Gibson first became involved with LARS after her retirement when she heard the organization was looking for new volunteers and decided that she wanted to give back to the community.
Gibson said Laurel has always been a special place to her because both her husband's and father's families live in the area.
Once she started volunteering, Gibson said she quickly realized that LARS was unique because it seeks to provide people with the help they need for the long term.
"I think people feel that LARS really cares about people and what happens to them," she said.
But Gibson's dedication doesn't end after Christmas, Graham said. The rest of the year, she spends three days a week answering the phones and referring people to other agencies for assistance with housing and drug and alcohol treatment. Graham said the number of clients LARS serves has increased by about 30 percent this year. She said the organization assisted about 1,500 people last year.
Gibson belongs to St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Laurel, where she fills out paperwork and does other administrative work on a volunteer basis. The Rev. Robbie Morganfield, pastor at St. Mark's, said Gibson does some sort of volunteer work for the church every day, either from home or at the building.
"She is absolutely, without question, the most dedicated person that I've ever encountered in my entire life," Morganfield said. "Our church couldn't survive without her."
Gibson also uses the skills she attained during her career as an office director to assist families and individuals with forming budgets and other financial tasks through LARS.
Often, helping people decide how to spend their money can prevent emergency situations from arising in the first place, she said.
"What I'm trying to do is get people to realize ... that they have to take a look at their needs rather than their wants," she said.
Gibson said one of her main goals is to teach people how to be financially independent and take charge of their own direction in life. The best part of working for LARS, she said, is when she is able to help clients understand how to help themselves.
"Finally they see the light," Gibson said. "They see, Hey, I can do this. This is really happening for me.'"