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Eastmoreland doctor finds mentoring a rich experience

by: Elizabeth Ussher Groff, Describing his quest for a meaningful volunteer commitment, Eastmoreland doctor Jim Reuler says, “I think most adults are so pressed for time we don’t give ourselves the time to think about what we want to do, and where we want to invest our time.”  After considerable research and reflection, Reuler became a long-term mentor for a young student emerging from homelessness.

Eastmoreland resident Jim Reuler is deeply idealistic and extremely organized. Put these two qualities together, and you start to understand how he has managed to have a positive impact on many lives.

A year ago, Reuler stepped down after nearly twenty-eight years as Chief of General Medicine at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Today he continues to serve at the VA as a general internist as well as professor of medicine at the VA and at Oregon Health Sciences University.

Despite such a busy professional life, Reuler has simultaneously for many years pursued meaningful volunteer commitments. In 1977 he provided health education, and then a clinic, at the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center. That experience led to his founding in 1984 of The Wallace Medical Concern (WMC), a nonprofit agency that provides free health services to uninsured and homeless people (all services provided by volunteer medical professionals).

From 1997 until the spring of 2001 he headed the Oregon Chapter of the American College of Physicians (ACP), a considerable volunteer responsibility.

In 2000, as Reuler saw the ACP commitment coming to an end, he began to ask himself 'what to do with the rest of my volunteer life'. His reflective and thorough process by which he decided how to spend his precious spare time is an example of just how to go about finding a volunteer commitment to fit one's values and schedule.

'I was pretty sure I wanted to continue working in some way with the homeless, and I was attracted to the idea of being a volunteer mentor,' he explains. He had mentored hundreds of medical students - but all of his activities, professional as well as volunteer, involved working with large numbers of people. He now was ready for something a little more low-key. 'I wanted a chance to work one-on-one in some capacity.'

For several months in 2000 Reuler engaged in informational interviews with people who were volunteer mentors. He researched different organizations, while continuing some personal reflection about what he valued.

'I learned about the YWCA LearnLinks Program when I conducted an informational interview with the YWCA Executive Director,' explains Reuler. The program, which provides volunteer tutors, mentors and material aid to homeless children, appealed to him.

In the spring of 2000 he began the application process, supplied four personal references, took an FBI background check, attended a volunteer orientation to learn more about the program, and had a LearnLinks one-on-one interview.

'In September of 2000 I met with the student, his mother, and a Learnlinks staff member. The student was in second grade, and the family was just emerging from an emergency shelter. The mother and her three children were struggling to survive,' remembers Reuler.

Mentoring becomes a part of life

Reuler's mentorship blossomed into a seven-year commitment that brought the student stability as well as educational and social activities that would have otherwise been unavailable.

'Early on, weekly meetings focused on homework, math drills, and reading out loud. We spent a lot of time at OMSI (LearnLinks provides a free pass) where we also did homework. We would go to public library branches so he could work on projects that needed computer work.'

As time went on, and the student became more secure academically, Reuler did less tutoring and became more of a resource person. 'Over the last three years we have spent quite a bit of time at bookstores and music stores, and talking about social issues and problems,' he says.

In middle school the student became interested in music. Through a public school contact, Reuler helped locate a used saxophone at a reasonable price. He attended music-related activities with the student, including recitals. He became a steady, reliable part of the student's life. 'I was there to support the family in any way, but I never wanted to usurp the role of the father,' notes Reuler.

Over the years Reuler felt he was learning as much as his student. 'I have learned so many things related to public policy. The lack of affordable housing was astounding. The student's mother was working full-time, but couldn't afford an apartment near the schools she chose for her children. She looked for months. Finally they moved in with the father, who recently has become a bigger part of their lives again.

'This has given me another perspective,' Reuler says of his seven-year involvement. It has reinforced his gratitude for the privileges in his own life, and made him more sensitive to the realities of immigration and the struggles faced in poverty.

'The student's mom is like my hero,' he says, reflecting on a young mother working long hours, raising three sons in a society fraught with risks for children who have very limited income and few opportunities.

A surprise benefit of the volunteer commitment has been a new dimension brought to Reuler's own family life. As he sought advice on lesson plans and teaching from his grown daughters and wife, who are in the education field, he became better acquainted with their skills and the work they do.

LearnLinks supports volunteers

Reuler can't say enough good things about the support the LearnLinks Program gives to its mentors: Volunteer networking meetings, ideas for continued involvement during the summer, and sound advice when needed.

'I have gotten so much out of this experience. It has fulfilled all my goals. For me, it was a fabulous entry into volunteer mentoring,' Reuler concludes.

For more information about mentoring or tutoring with the YWCA of Greater Portland LearnLinks Program call Tonya Parson at 503/721-1752.