Career volunteer finds special joy in serving others

Joan Shewbrooks
Joan Shewbrooks

Young women today might not understand how a college-educated woman would choose to pursue a career in volunteerism instead of entering the workforce. But for Joan LeChot Shewbrooks, in the 1960s, marriage to a corporate executive meant frequent moves up and down the East Coast, to the Midwest and overseas. 

Not only was it difficult to maintain a career, Joan found that every time she and her husband, Steve, moved – 16 times in 53 years – she had to apply for a driver’s license in a new state – seven times.

Stephen and Joan Shewbrooks, residents at Ortega Bay condominiums, were high school sweethearts in Pompano Beach High School, and both attended the University of Florida, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English and journalism. Steve, armed with a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering and an MBA, went to work for IBM in 1968, effectively kickstarting Joan’s life as a “career volunteer.”

Joan said she grew up with the notion that one volunteered. “My mother was always a volunteer of some sort, PTA president, Scout leader, choir mom, etc., and my father’s mother volunteered in a local nursing home for 40 years or more,” she said. But when it came time to begin her own volunteer career, Joan was inspired by her husband’s mother, grandmother and godmother, who were all healthcare volunteers. “They were educated, erudite, funny ladies I greatly admired,” Joan said.

Before the couple left Gainesville in 1968, Joan had volunteered for six years at the Children’s Hospital there. Upon arriving in Boca Raton, the first of 11 IBM moves, Joan began serving as a front desk volunteer and flower and mail deliverer at the community hospital there.

From South Florida they zigzagged to Rochester, Minn.; Chappaqua, New York; Paris, France; back to South Florida in Highland Beach; back to Rochester, Minn.; then to White Plains, New York; back to Paris; and then finally to Hopewell Junction, New York, where Steve retired in 2003. 

All along the way, Joan gave her time to hospitals and medical centers, but also volunteered in a library, served as a PBS station gala publicity chairperson, was a board member for the Minnesota Orchestra, a tennis instructor in New York, a weekend puppy sitter for Puppies Behind Bars, and a foster for a breeding dog for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

Joan said the hospital stint which stands out most in her mind is when she worked in a closed unit at the Cornell Psychiatric Hospital in White Plains. “It was an amazing learning experience in human behavior, mine and others,” she said.

The first time the Shewbrooks were sent to Paris, 1975-1980, in addition to volunteering at the American Hospital of Paris, Joan “worked” at a wine shop. Because she could not get a work permit, she received “payment in kind. Best job ever!” 

During both stints in Paris, the second in 1993-1995, Joan’s volunteer work was not typical front desk work. She served as assistant editor of a new edition of “Le Cookbook,” was assistant head, then head, of the patient library, taught conversational English to the French hospital staff, and was vice president of orientation programs.

Before moving to Jacksonville in 2006, Joan was named Dutchess County (NY) Volunteer of the Year in 2005, which came as no surprise to her husband.

“Joan is blessed with instinctive leadership qualities that are quickly recognized in any organization she works in. She was president of her sorority in college and president of the auxiliary in three different hospitals,” said Steve. “It has been very interesting for me to observe this since I benefited from 35 years with IBM, which has one of the finest management training programs in the corporate world.”

Upon moving to their first home in Ortega, Joan immediately became a volunteer at St. Vincent’s Riverside and joined the Auxiliary, where she served as president for two terms. Now she “works” two days a week at St. Vincent’s, one morning in Human Resources, one in the gift shop, and two afternoons at the information desk. She also subs for other volunteers in the surgery center or surgical waiting room.

For Joan, there’s a special joy in volunteering. “There is always work to be done and you are thanked for your efforts,” she said.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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