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Jobless volunteer has time to spare

Annette Arca wheels a cart through the children’s wing of a local hospital, passing out sack lunches to parents holding vigil over their sick or dying children.

“Lunch from the Ronald McDonald House?” she calls into each of the dim rooms.

The parents greet her with weary smiles of gratitude and an occasional “God bless you.”

It’s a small kindness, a few hours out of Arca’s day, but it’s important to her for a couple of reasons.

First, it brings momentary comfort, even if small, to families in need of it.

Second, it helps Arca keep her recent job loss in perspective: Things could always be worse.

Arca has always wanted to help others through volunteering. But as a mother and busy commercial real estate saleswoman, she didn’t have much free time.

Then, at 52, Arca unexpectedly found herself with too much time on her hands; she got laid off from the $65,000-a-year job she had held for six years.

She now is unable to make her townhouse payments and is struggling to support herself with part-time real estate work, supplemented with unemployment benefits.

But Arca has chosen to focus on what is for her the upside of job loss: She can finally give back.

“It’s a great opportunity to get involved, to help other people,” Arca said of the hours she spends volunteering each week at the Ronald McDonald House and Family Promise, an organization that helps homeless families. “I believe things happen for a reason.”

Arca, who lives with two of her now-grown children — both are unemployed — admits she could use a little help herself.

But it makes sense to spend time helping others when she is not looking for work or going on job interviews. It makes her feel fulfilled and helps her maintain a positive attitude.

It also keeps her from obsessing about less pleasant topics: the possibility of losing her home, the mounting bills, the dozens of résumés she has sent out without success.

“If I’m negative, nothing’s ever going to happen for me,” she said one morning while assembling turkey sandwiches at the Ronald McDonald House.

She spends a day each week helping deliver more than 100 sack lunches to University Medical Center and Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center. She also spends varying hours volunteering for Family Promise, an organization she heard about from Claudia Widhalm, a member of the nonprofit’s board of directors and a former colleague of Arca’s.

The two women have known each other about five years. As former co-workers, Widhalm appreciated Arca’s research skills and thought they could be put to good use at Family Promise.

“When you give her a task to do, she just gets it done,” Widhalm says.

Arca has been researching grants for Family Promise, hoping to help secure more funding toward helping families in greater need than her own.

She also has been helping gather silent auction items for a fundraiser for the organization.

While working as a volunteer is good for Arca’s mental health, it’s also a smart move careerwise, said Jeff Ogden, vice president of community development for the local United Way, which manages the Volunteer Center of Southern Nevada.

Volunteer work can be used to fill gaps in a résumé, he said.

It also helps people network new relationships that could eventually land them a job.

“When you’re used to working, you don’t want to just sit at home where you’ll get into a rut,” Ogden said. “You want to get out there, have a schedule, feel like you’re part of the community.”

With Las Vegas’ unemployment now at 13.9 percent, the volunteer center has lately seen a surge in the number of volunteers who are jobless.

Widhalm said she was shocked and saddened when Arca lost her job, but not surprised that her friend has remained optimistic.

“She’s always had such a great attitude,” Widhalm said. “She’s a person who finds the positive even when there are difficulties in life.”

But Arca doesn’t sugarcoat her situation. Things are bad, and she’s scared.

“It’s very depressing when you don’t get phone calls back after sending out 100 résumés.”

She has thought about searching for jobs outside her career field, but wonders: “What would I do?”

When asked how long she’ll be able to stay in her townhouse, Arca simply sighs heavily and shakes her head.

She is trying to modify her home loan.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I can’t afford it,” she said, then grows quiet — her signal that she is through focusing for now on the myriad worries that come with job loss.

She is reminded of them often enough. Each time a potential employer passes on the opportunity to hire her, for example.

Despite the sour economy, there are plenty of jobs out there, she said. The problem is that “500 people are applying for each job.”

Arca consoles herself with the belief that if she didn’t get a certain job, it simply wasn’t meant for her to begin with.

Meanwhile, she continues dedicating a chunk of her free time to volunteer work. She sometimes stops to chat with the sick children she finds alone in their rooms, playing video games, reading or simply resting.

There, it’s easy to shift focus away from her problems, and, later, to face them with renewed energy.

“I still believe there’s something good out there for me.”

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.

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