Before I tell you about my amazing experience volunteering as a photographer – yep, a photographer – at a local event for individuals with multiple sclerosis, I want to do a shameless plug for two volunteering opportunities that are coming up…and I need you to come out and volunteer.
Servathon DC – On Saturday April 16th Team Year of Giving will help Greater DC Cares. We’ll most likely be assigned to a local DC school or public park. Click here, sign up and choose to join a team. Then when prompted with the list of available teams, scroll down to the bottom and you should find Team Year of Giving!
Hands on DC Work-A-Thon: Similar to Servathon, this is a large city-wide initiative that focuses on improving DC Public Schools. Click here to join…be sure to join Team Year of Giving!
Speaking of volunteering, my most recent volunteer outing was with the National Capital Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. A Day of Healing was a half-day program that was offered, free of cost as I understand it, in conjunction with the local YMCA for people in the DC area living with MS. An autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system, MS affects approximately 300,000 people (mostly women) in this country.
I arrived a few minutes late, having promised earlier that I would arrive by 10am. I somehow got stuck in the middle of a road race and couldn’t get unstuck for about 30 minutes. Thankfully I had given myself plenty of time to get there. When I finally did arrive I was greeted by Emily, a senior communications manager for the MS Society.
The day’s program started with a light breakfast, followed by an opening ceremony and group meditation led by Dr. Hugh Byrne who is an expert in mindfulness – the art of bringing a direct, non-judging awareness to our own experience, moment-by-moment. I think this is mostly done through meditation, but it seems clear that you can do this throughout your day as well.
I was instructed to try to get some photos in the opening session of Dr. Byrne speaking and leading the group meditation. First of all, I got to tell you that Dr. Byrne is your man if you want to meditate. I wasn’t even really trying to meditate, remember my task was to capture images, and I was like a baby being lulled to sleep by his calm British accent. But no time to relax, I have to get some photos.
Photographing people meditating is really awkward…second only to covering a funeral probably. You have a sea of attendees all motionless with their eyelids closed; resting like heavy clouds. The worst thing probably, besides the occasional hotel staffer who would make some noise, was the sound of me snapping pictures! Anyway, I tried to be respectful and got through the session. I don’t know if they will be able to use them though because basically it looks like an audience full of bored attendees who have fallen asleep!
Later the attendees had the opportunity to attend two of three break-out sessions that focused on yoga, nutrition and art therapy. Somewhere in the mix there was a lunch too where Dr. Byrne would deliver the keynote address and talk about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and how it can positively affect those living with MS.
I weaved in and out of the break-out sessions trying to get good photographs despite the blah yellowish-gold colored rooms that were backdrops to the images I was to capture. What is it about hotel conference rooms that dictate that they be painted this terrible color anyway. All the while I have to be mindful of those with an orange circle on their badge. That meant they didn’t want to be photographed. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m color- blind. But I did the best I could!
Back at the lunch I set down my Nikon for a while and enjoyed the spread of food (who says there’s no free lunch!) and concentrated on Dr. Byrne’s presentation. Let me tell you that I am not someone who is into meditation and yoga. The only thing worse than sitting still for me is sitting still and getting blood work or a cavity filled (sorry Dr. Robinson!) But I will say that I really enjoyed Dr. Byrne’s presentation and did allow myself to relax some too.
According to our keynote speaker, subjects in a recent MBSR study reported improved memory and empathy while reducing stress. Now what was really astonishing was that when they did MRIs of these individuals the participants in the MBSR program showed increased brain density in the areas that deal with cognitive learning, compassion and introspection. Furthermore they experienced a thinning of the brain matter that relates to stress and anxiety. Nobody in the control group experienced such changes. Now that is pretty phenomenal. You might make me a believer out of this after all.
There were other impressive studies as well such as one done by researchers at UCLA that showed a slowing of the progression of HIV in patients who practiced MBSR. Dr. Byrne, who was celebrating his 60th birthday on this day, left us with one clear message: “Attitude is everything.” What is the attitude that we bring to our current situation? I am a big believer in the power of positive thinking and attitude and couldn’t agree more with his emphasis on this point.
If you would like to help the MS Society by volunteering or making a donation, please visit www.nmss.org. And for those of you in the DC area, come out and join them at Walk MS on April 9, 10th and 16th. Click here for more details.