January 5, 2006
Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?
To try to figure out all the volunteer projects social worker Karen Gilman is involved in -- and where she finds the time to do them all -- is to sift through a complex maze of stories of individuals who need help, or organizations that need help, or a volunteer staff that needs organization, or funds or whatever she can give.
For her job, Gilman is a social worker, who deals with parents of developmentally disabled children ranging in age up to 3.
"Some of my work-work interferes with my volunteer work," she joked.
That volunteer work is vast. She served as the sisterhood president of Temple Israel of Hollywood and currently co-chairs its AIDS lunch project, which distributes food once a month. Gilman is also social action chair for the Western Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, which presents the women's positions on legislative policy.
She also works with Shane's Inspiration, a nonprofit group that creates handicapped-accessible playgrounds around Los Angeles, and serves on the Special Olympics Mini Meet committee, as well as Fiesta Familiar, a yearly training program for parents of children with disabilities.
There's more -- like volunteering at her temple gift shop and working with the day school children on volunteer projects -- but the real questions are: How does she do it? How does she not get burned out?
By way of an answer, she tells stories of second-graders who donated money anonymously so a poor person could celebrate Purim, the school lunch lady who called her to find out what to do for a severely lactose-intolerant child on pizza day and the parents who advocate for their children and "turn their pain in something for their families. That keeps us going," she said, although even the mere question of what motivates her is curious to her.
"Once in a while, someone will do something out of the kindness of their hearts for someone else," she said. "When you're able to pull together the research and make something happen for someone, and they can utilize the resources, it's gratifying."
That's Gilman's main motivation. She was raised by socially conscious and politically active parents and grandparents in Chicago.
"They set the stage that this was the right thing to do," she said.
"She doesn't seek the limelight," said Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood. "She really does it modestly. She just cares a lot -- she knows she has the ability, and she knows a mitzvah and how to do it."
That's why the temple decided to surprise her by honoring her -- only her -- last year.
"They really shouldn't have done it," Gilman said, more embarrassed than upset. "Everyone works together on all these projects, and no one person is more deserving than another for praise. The highest form of giving charity is doing so anonymously, so it's not really good to draw attention to oneself in one's charitable work."
For Gilman, volunteering is a team effort, one that requires motivating others to join her: "They are doing something good together with their friends, you get to spend a great time together with your community and it will make you feel good. People love giving anonymously and selflessly. Usually, Jewish people are easy to convince. They usually understand the concept of charity pretty well."