December 2017 Volunteer of the Month

Karen Alwine

When Mitch Albom spoke at The ALS Association Greater Philadelphia Chapter’s 40th Anniversary Gala, he reminded everybody of a famous lesson from his book, tuesdays with Morrie: “Giving is Living.” Even if she didn’t say those exact words in that exact way, you could attribute the same life lesson to Karen Alwine, the Chapter’s December 2017 Volunteer of the Month.

The love of service guided Karen throughout her life. It also helped her meet the man who would become her husband. It was in the 1960’s that Karen met Larry Alwine when they were both working through Brethren Volunteer Service in Harrisburg, PA. Larry was working with the boys in the community and Karen was volunteering during her high school and college years.

Karen and Larry continued to volunteer, not just for a few months, but for nearly five decades. They were married for 47 years and in that time had four daughters, nine grandchildren, and one great-grandson.

The blessings of family just made the Alwines even more inclined to service.  Larry worked at Hershey for many years and Karen worked as a hairdresser and also taught others to be hairdressers. While they worked and raised a family, Larry and Karen continued to volunteer in their church and their community.

Eventually, Larry retired from working full time. Even though he was officially retired, he wanted to work for his brother’s business and help with landscaping. That was when he noticed significant changes in his body. He started to feel tired all of the time and needed to sleep a lot. Even though he looked ok from the outside, Larry and Karen knew that something was not right.

Larry was also a very good singer and performed in the church choir. Suddenly he wasn’t able to keep up the singing as well because he could not fully get his breath. Everything was getting harder and he was not sure why. He had gone through cancer once before, so they thought maybe the cancer had returned, but this was different. This time they needed to see a neurologist.

That was when the Alwines met Dr. Zach Simmons and the care team at Hershey Medical Center. Larry learned that he had ALS and Karen learned that she would have to take on some new responsibilities.

“The care from Hershey was wonderful,” recalls Karen. “We actually looked forward to being there, we really did. Maureen and Susan were there for us every day.”

The breathing was the worst problem for Larry. As the disease progressed, Larry had more trouble speaking too. A friend at church gave him an iPad to use. Even though he couldn’t communicate as well as he did before ALS, Larry still was able to joke around with everyone. The disease took so much from him, but it never took away who he was as a person.

As much as Karen did not want to see Larry fight through ALS, she felt grateful that Larry would always be surrounded by family and friends. He was never alone, even on the day he passed away from ALS on April 25, 2014.

When Larry died, his family had a home viewing. “I had already spent over a year grieving his death before that day,” Karen remembered. “We were determined to celebrate his life. That’s what he would want.”

The ALS experience helped Karen see what was valuable for her and Larry as he progressed with the disease. They had found each other through volunteer service and that is how she could continue to honor him. While ALS took away Larry’s physical strength and his speech, his personal religious faith never faltered, which is why his family created the “Keeping the Faith” Walk to Defeat ALS team. In addition to remembering Larry through their team in the Hershey Walk to Defeat ALS, Karen signed up to be a Visiting Volunteer.

“I know that not everybody had the support that I had,” said Karen. “Even just coming to unload someone’s dishwasher can be a relief. I’ve always volunteered, and I know that sometimes you need someone there, even just to talk. It doesn’t matter if you have ALS or what, if you can help somebody, you just do it. My parents volunteered, Larry and I volunteered, it’s just what you do. I enjoy doing things for people.”

So today, nearly four years after Larry passed away, Karen keeps his spirit alive by living their values and their faith through volunteering for others. She has helped different people with ALS, sitting with them, giving them her time, and doing chores as needed. Every person’s ALS journey is different, but they all still want someone to be there and keep life as normal as possible.

This year, The ALS Association Greater Philadelphia Chapter celebrated a 40 year anniversary milestone. The chapter was built on volunteering, from the Chapter founder Felice Wiener to Chapter President Ellyn Phillips, to hundreds of others over those years. Karen Alwine lived that same mission even before ALS came into her life. Today she shares that gift of herself with others as they need it and the Chapter is stronger because of the time she gives.

 


 
 

The ALS Association Greater Philadelphia Chapter
321 Norristown Road - Suite 260, Ambler, PA 19002
215-643-5434

The ALS Association is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and donations are tax deductible to the full extent of the law.