Fox Valley Hands of Hope volunteer is there for people who need to talk

Fox Valley Hands of Hope volunteer is there for people who need to talk

  • Ken Karczewski of Elgin is a hospice patient and bereavement care volunteer with Fox Valley Hands of Hope.

      Ken Karczewski of Elgin is a hospice patient and bereavement care volunteer with Fox Valley Hands of Hope. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted12/10/2019 6:00 AM

The stories are deep, the emotions are raw, and the pain is sometimes overwhelming. But Ken Karczewski doesn't let his experience volunteering with Fox Valley Hands of Hope weigh on him.

In fact, he says, helping people through their most difficult moments has become the most rewarding experience of his life.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Karczewski, an 80-year-old Elgin resident, has worn several hats since going through intensive training for the Geneva-based organization in 2012.

He leads support programs to help spouses and families cope with death. He takes grief groups on annual weekend getaways filled with therapeutic outdoor activities. He coordinates weekly one-on-one visits with hospice patients or individuals who have lost a loved one.

Regardless of their situation, Karczewski has found that most clients are looking for the same thing. They want someone with whom they can share their stories, their memories, their fears. They take comfort in the support of a stranger, in knowing that someone cares.

"You just kind of help them through different stages (of) what they're going through at that time," he said. "Listening is really what it is. ... It's the most important thing."

A career in the sales industry made Karczewski realize his knack for building a rapport with people.

The Detroit native had a bachelor's degree in business, but later decided to get his master's in communication science -- a psychology-related field that led to a part-time position working with abusive men at Aurora-based Family Counseling Service. He stuck with it for eight years while also keeping his sales job.

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After his retirement, Karczewski and his wife had every intention of becoming snowbirds, he said. They traveled south to Florida a few winters in a row, which was fun at first, but then he got the itch. "I really needed to do something," he said.

That's when Karczewski came across a monthly flyer for what was then called Fox Valley Volunteer Hospice (the agency later changed its name to reflect its breadth of services).

His wife recognized his passion for the program as soon as the training began, he said, and they knew it couldn't be a half-time commitment. So they sold their Florida home and decided to stay in the suburbs permanently.

Seven years later, Karczewski is one of the most reliable, caring and respected volunteers at the nonprofit, said Adriana Torres, manager of volunteer services. He's even thinking of taking on more responsibility, such as visiting with cancer patients as they go through chemotherapy.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"If we have a hard case ... we immediately think of Ken," she said. "He's a good listener (with) lots of patience. He knows how to work with them."

One of Ken Karczewski's favorite things about volunteer work is watching children from different families bond during Fox Valley Hands of Hope's "Grief Takes a Hike" program. "They're finding that the kids they're with have the same issues -- somebody they love died -- so they're not alone," Karczewski said.
One of Ken Karczewski's favorite things about volunteer work is watching children from different families bond during Fox Valley Hands of Hope's "Grief Takes a Hike" program. "They're finding that the kids they're with have the same issues -- somebody they love died -- so they're not alone," Karczewski said. - Courtesy of Fox Valley Hands of Hope

Karczewski can't quite put his finger on what he likes most about the volunteer work. Perhaps it's the challenge of facilitating group discussions during bereavement sessions. Or maybe it's watching children from different families bond during a "Grief Takes a Hike" trip.

"They're finding that the kids they're with have the same issues -- somebody they love died -- so they're not alone," Karczewski said. "It's a big deal for them. They don't feel like they're the lone ranger out there."

Once a month, he visits a Lutheran Social Services of Illinois addiction center in Elgin, where he helps men realize the losses they have experienced and how grief has affected their lives. For some, he says, it can be an eye-opening moment.

The one-on-one sessions are rewarding in their own ways, Karczewski said. Someone whose spouse just died, for example, may meet with him weekly for nearly a year and a half to work through the grief process.

"We try to help them see that they're going to have a new normal now," he said.

For patients with life-threatening illnesses, the visits give them a chance to open up and share their life stories. Karczewski recalled the words of one hospice patient after his third and final one-on-one session before his health declined drastically.

"Every time you're here and I can talk to you," the patient told him, "I feel like a new man."

Moments like that make it all worth it.

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