Serving and Giving: An Interview with John O’Donnell

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Serving and Giving: An Interview with John O’Donnell

Patty: How did you end up coming to Martha’s Table?

John: I had a long career with the National Labor Relations Board and retired in 2009. With a little more time on my hands, I wanted to be useful. I was looking around for volunteer opportunities and Martha’s Table happened to fit into my schedule. I suppose I cared less about what I was actually doing than the fact that I was doing something to help somebody.

Patty: You have limited vision, but you were still open to doing anything that could help us out. That’s just part of your philosophy—let me just try it, I’ll do it?

John: You do what you can. And I’ve got a little bit of eyesight left, which is somewhat helpful. But I’m like anyone else in that I want to be productive and helpful and do what I’m capable of doing. The fact is I can’t do everything that normally-sighted people can do. But there are a few things I can do.

Patty: Chopping onions is one of them.

John: I often joke that after 30 years in the federal government, I finally found something I was good at—unskilled labor!

Patty: How else have you volunteered your time?

John: I recently had an opportunity to attend a United Way fundraiser at Sibley Hospital on behalf of Martha’s Table. This one guy came up to me, and I started giving my little pitch, but he told me he already knew what Martha’s Table does. He told me, a while ago, he had a rough patch in his life and Martha’s Table helped him out. He has a full time job now at the hospital and supports his three children. But he said he’ll never forget how Martha’s Table was there for his family when he needed it most.

Patty: That’s such a wonderful story. I think the sheer inertia of everyday activity causes people to forget that there’s something they can do—whether it’s withdrawing from their paycheck, or chopping vegetables on Thursday, or bringing their extra coats in because it’s getting to be winter. How do you think about the time you spend volunteering and the money you donate—separately, or together?

John: I think of them together. From my time [volunteering] in food prep, I’m in a position to see how things are done here, and I’ve come to learn that so much work is done by volunteers, meaning it’s very efficient. As a donor, you want to give money where you know it’s being used efficiently.

Patty: And your service helps you see that that’s the case. Do you have a focus for your giving?

John: You know, it’s something I take really, really seriously. The first year I retired, I took a really close look at what my financial situation was, and calculated how much money I’d need for the rest of my life. After that, I just decided that there was really no point in accumulating any more money—it doesn’t make me happy. So at the end of every year, I just give away whatever’s left in the bank of my pension. I’ve been proud to add Martha’s Table to that list because I know how important our work is with the community, and I have a great respect for the vision to meet the diverse needs, which include everything from emergency food to education for children.

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