Volunteer Paramedic Passionate about Service


Betsy Biesenbach, Special to The Roanoke Times | | Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Garry Lautenschlager, 57, takes the injunction to "love thy neighbor as thyself" very seriously. "They're the most cherished words in the Bible," he said.

That's why you'll find him at the front desk at Roanoke Area Ministries' day shelter at least two Saturdays a month. His job is to check in shelter guests, give them colored wrist bands, hand out toilet paper, direct new arrivals to the shelter manager for screening and be a friendly, welcoming face when people walk in the door.

None of the money donated to the Good Neighbors Fund - which is sponsored by the Roanoke Times - goes toward administrative costs. So volunteers such as Lautenschlager help keep the 25-year-old charity going.

Lautenschlager has been with RAM for three years and also volunteers at the Roanoke Rescue Mission and Family Promise of the Roanoke Valley - formerly the Interfaith Hospitality Network. He's active in his church - College Lutheran - and also been a volunteer paramedic for 25 years, teaching classes in CPR and first aid.

Two years ago, Lautenschlager decided to offer the classes to RAM's shelter guests.

"It's one of the most rewarding classes I do," he said. "They ask tremendous questions."

Many of the guests are in poor health and are homeless. They also care about each other and want to be able to help in an emergency, Lautenschlager said. After attending the class, one of his students told him that he was able to administer CPR to another man and saved his life.

"He was so proud that he could do that," Lautenschlager said. "It really helps their self-esteem. It's really making a difference."

Lautenschlager has also trained RAM's shelter managers and some guests to use an automated external defibrillator. When using CPR alone, he said, the survival rate is about 35 percent. With CPR and an AED, that figure jumps to 85 percent.

Lautenschlager has a bachelor's degree in urban studies from Roanoke College, but he is no stranger to unemployment or to the needs of the poor.

He has worked as a child care aide and was director of youth sports for Salem for two and a half years in the early 1980s. He began working at Advance Auto's corporate headquarters in 2001, but in 2009, his position was eliminated.

"It was the very beginning of the economic downturn," he said, and for a six-month period, Lautenschlager was out of work. But he looked at it as an opportunity "to do some of the volunteer work I've always wanted to do. I wanted to make the best possible use of my time." Besides working RAM's front desk, he also helped in the financial aid office.

In 2010, Lautenschlager was rehired by Advance Auto as a data governance specialist. The months he was out of work weren't an easy time, Lautenschlager said, but unlike many of the people he sees at RAM, he had the support of his family and friends.
Not all of the shelter guests are homeless, Lautenschlager said. Many of them work and have places to live, but can't afford enough food.

"This is a social activity for some of them," he said. For others, "they've just had an unfortunate start in life." Over the years, he said, "I've seen more and more children, more and more families. They're having to make tough choices."

More than 100 people show up for lunch on any given Saturday, he said. "It gets pretty crowded."

Lautenschlager said that RAM could always use more volunteers at the front desk. It's a job that doesn't require any strenuous physical labor, but can be very rewarding.

"Remember these are people, and not just a statistic," he said. "When I leave here, I am more passionate about my need to serve."

The most difficult part of the job, he said, is wrapping his mind around the idea that "in a land of plenty, there is hunger. There has got to be a better way to help these people."

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