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Three years ago, Collin Lee retired from Muni, where he worked as a bus mechanic for thirty years. “I feel very fortunate. I get all this time, and I don’t have to work,” he tells me. “I feel I have to pay back my community. And I enjoy doing it.”
Two years ago – one year into his retirement – Collin was reading the newspaper and came across an ad seeking volunteer assistance on Thanksgiving Day. The ad was placed by Meals On Wheels. Collin thought, “That’s a nice thing to do. I can do that.” And he did.
After delivering turkey dinners that Thanksgiving, Collin asked how else he could help. He learned that through our Client Needs Program, he could deliver household essentials like Ensure and microwaves, and he could do it on his own schedule. He liked that idea, and signed up immediately.
It’s been two years now, and Collin has been a steadfast volunteer. Each week, he drops by Meals On Wheels in the car he shares with his wife to pick up enough Ensure for his clients. But, appropriately enough for a former Muni bus mechanic, he makes his client visits via bus. Collin is a huge proponent of public transportation, preferring not “to use fossil fuels.” “I used to bike everywhere, but I can’t bike with the Ensure,” he explains. “When I go to see clients in the Tenderloin, I take the street car. I like it.”
It’s not all Ensure deliveries for Collin, however. He pauses and tells me about a visit that has stuck with him. Collin arrived at this particular gentleman’s house one day, and his request was that Collin fix his broken screen door. Collin fixed the screen door in five minutes, and then sat down on the couch with the gentleman to chat. He learned that a few weeks earlier, the man’s wife had suffered a heart attack, and when emergency services arrived, they broke the screen door. The screen door survived, thanks to Collin, but the man’s wife did not. In the weeks since her passing, he’d been grieving, suffering from severe loneliness. He had visitors scheduled regularly for every day of the week except for Sunday – the day Collin arrived. What Collin provided for this man was more than a new door – it was a reprieve from the isolation he felt after the passing of his wife, after the living of a very full life.
Collin, a man who emigrated from poor circumstances in Hong Kong to the promise of San Francisco at the age of 13, has spent his life returning the favors he feels he’s been given. “I feel grateful to have been helped by people when I came here [to San Francisco]. Volunteering gives me meaning in life; it keeps me in contact with the community. It makes me see that the problems I have are nothing compared to those less fortunate.” When I ask Collin how else he spends his time, he tells me that he also volunteers for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Project Open Hand. I laugh, but he stops me with a smile. “I also travel and exercise. I still do what I want to do. Relatively, it’s a small amount of time I give to others.”
Even through all his modesty, one can sense an urgency to his demeanor and a seriousness about the work that needs to be done in our community. “Once I read that you can judge a community based on how they care for their vulnerable.” With Collin on our team, I predict we’ll make pretty good progress.