Janet Rowland has spent most of her life helping others. Raised on a tobacco farm in Mechanicsville, the second to the youngest child in a large family, she grew up milking cows, gathering eggs, and nurturing the family’s pet cats.
So it was no surprise that when she graduated from high school she decided to become a nurse. After attending nursing school in Washington, D.C., she went to work at the National Institutes of Health, where she stayed for 30 years. While working as a nurse in radiation therapy at the National Cancer Institute, she had little time for volunteerism. She was too busy working full time and raising two children and four stepchildren.
Upon returning to live in St. Mary’s County with her husband Gene, she retired from the government, but wasn’t satisfied with sitting still for too long and went to work as a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital. Just a few years after moving back, building their dream home, and enjoying semi-retirement, the unthinkable happened and Rowland lost her husband to cancer. Instead of being paralyzed by grief, Rowland did what she has always done - she reached out to help others - and in turn got the help she needed to see her through a very difficult time in her life.
While still working, she started volunteering at Sotterley Plantation in Hollywood. She had read about Sotterley years before in elementary school and how it was the oldest working plantation in Maryland. Because it was so close to home, she decided it was the perfect place to begin volunteering.
Now, 22 years later, she still gives of her time to Sotterley, working one day a week selling tour tickets, manning the museum gift shop, and working special events such as the annual Riverside Winefest and the holiday candlelight tours. “It reminds me a lot of home,” says Rowland, comparing the plantation to the farm where she grew up. “Even the bang of the screen door sounds the same,” she adds.
Though she changed jobs over the years, eventually finishing out her career as a nurse with the St. Mary’s County Health Department, Rowland continued to give back to the community. Over time, Rowland has added to her volunteer resume by delivering meals through the St. Mary’s County Meals On Wheels program. Once a week, she can be found visiting between 14 and 16 homes, taking hot meals to those aged 60 or older who are in need due to illness or incapacitation. The program, which is run by the county’s Department of Aging, relies heavily on these volunteer drivers who provide so much more than just food to the people they visit.
“Everyone is grateful,” says Rowland, “and they come to expect you each week.” She says that there is always a little conversation delivered along with the meals, often about the weather or current events, and that it helps ease the loneliness suffered by those to whom she brings meals.
And because Rowland is not one to do things part way, she added Hospice of St. Mary’s to her list of volunteer organizations this past summer. One morning a week, she cooks breakfast at the Hospice House. When asked why she does so much to give back to her community, she jokingly replies, “It keeps me off the streets!”
But she is the first to admit that for all she does, she receives something in return. She speaks of the joy, fun, and camaraderie gained from volunteering, and she truly loves what she is doing. “I enjoy helping people,” says Rowland. “I’ve always been in a profession that does that,” she adds. When she’s not volunteering, Rowland enjoys spending time with her family, reading, gardening, and doing crossword puzzles.
She wishes more people would volunteer, especially those who might be going through their own life challenges. “Sometimes it helps you to get through a process or a time in your own life,” says Rowland, proving that in order to heal your own heart, you might need to reach out to help heal the hearts of others.
For more information about volunteering for Sotterley Plantation, visit www.sotterley.com/members.htm; for Meals on Wheels, www.co.saint-marys.md.us/aging/volunteer.asp; and for Hospice of St. Mary’s County, www.hospiceofstmarys.org/hospice_volunteerwus.html.