Written by Danielle Rexrode of the Erickson Tribune

After retiring from 39 years as a computer science and math professor at Coppin State University, Ed Sommerfeldt wasn’t ready to hang up his hat as a mentor and teacher.

“I always loved working with students,” says Sommerfeldt, who moved to Oak Crest Retirement Community from his northeast Baltimore home of 33 years. “As a teacher, advisor, and department chair, I learned as much from the students as they did from me.”

Now, Sommerfeldt volunteers four days a week at Our Daily Bread in downtown Baltimore. Sponsored by Catholic Charities, Our Daily Bread is a comprehensive resource center that nourishes Baltimore’s poor with services like hot meals and educational programs. Sommerfeldtteaches math and computer skills at Christopher Place Employment Academy, a residential program through Our Daily Bread providing education and training as well as emotional, spiritual, and addiction recovery support to formerly homeless men. He also serves as a mentor and helps with resume writing and job searches.

Sommerfeldt’s connection to Our Daily Bread stemmed from his membership in the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. “Right after retirement, I volunteered at the new Cristo Rey Jesuit High School,” he says. “After the first semester, we discovered there really was no need to have two math teachers, so I moved over to Our Daily Bread. It was a natural move since I’m still able to use my computer and math background constantly.”

Do the math

Carl Howell is the program manager for Christopher Place and has worked with Sommerfeldt for more than a year.

“Mr. Sommerfeldt is a very committed member of our program and has improved the quality of our GED program by leaps and bounds since he joined our volunteer community,” says Howell.

“Volunteering is very important to our success at Our Daily Bread. We serve thousands of people each year. As a nonprofit organization, it takes anywhere from 3 to 50 volunteers to make our center run effectively. We really rely on people like Mr. Sommerfeldt who take a few hours of their day to help others. Without those volunteers, it would be impossible to achieve our goals.”

Howell says that one of the biggest misconceptions about those living in poverty is that they are lazy or that they don’t want to change. “When you interact with these men who come to the academy, you experience firsthand the hardships they have lived through,” he says. “Sometimes they just need a helping hand to get them on the right track.”

Sommerfeldt explained why he thinks Christopher Place is making a difference in people’s lives. “Some people would say that the men of Christopher Place have chosen their path in life and should not be given a second chance, but circumstance and opportunity play a large part in where people go in their lives,” he said. “If someone is an ex-offender, that is all the more reason to pay attention to them and where they are coming from. Forgiveness and compassion are the basis of the Christopher Place program. The men soak up every bit of information that is offered and are so appreciative to learn a different way of living. They are eager to move on to a better way of life.”

Giving spirit

Oak Crest Volunteer Coordinator Alison Krull recently interviewed Sommerfeldt on Oak Crest’s in-house TV station about his volunteer efforts at Our Daily Bread.

“Mr. Sommerfeldt is someone with a genuine interest in serving others, and he doesn’t hesitate to get involved,” says Krull. “To him, each client with whom he works is more than just a face; they are individuals with names, real stories, and most importantly, potential. His basic gift of time and compassion ensures that these individuals will not go unrecognized.”

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps and other programs, volunteers like Sommerfeldt aren’t alone. In 2008, 61.8 million Americans dedicated 8 billion hours of service to community organizations across the country. Maryland ranks 26th among the 50 states, with 1.3 million volunteers each year, contributing 216.6 million hours of service.

Despite tough economic times, “There’s a compassion boom going on,” says Robert Grimm of the Corporation for National and Community Service in a 2009 USA Today article. “Instead of people worrying about their own problems,” he said, “they’re thinking of others.”

At Oak Crest, volunteering is second nature to many residents. “We’re lucky to have a lot of men and women living here at Oak Crest who have an enormous propensity for giving and a generous volunteer spirit,” says Krull. “They are individuals who begin each day wondering what difference they can make in the world. Their knowledge, life experiences, and talents empower them to be instruments of change.”

Sommerfeldt says the satisfaction he gets from helping the “most needy folks in our society” keeps him going, and he’ll continue volunteering as long as he can.

“I love what I’m doing—it’s just the right thing for me at this time,” he says. “I continually get appreciation from the folks I encounter. For many of them, it’s the first time in years that they’ve thought about anything academic. They may have dropped out of school and begun to get a sense that maybe they can succeed where they failed in the past. I don’t do what I’m doing to get the appreciation, but I must admit that I appreciate being appreciated!”

When Sommerfeldt isn’t volunteering at Christopher Place, he and his wife sing in the gospel choir at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church and volunteer with St. Vincent de Paul, an independent, faith-based, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who are suffering from the effects of poverty meet their basic human needs and achieve a better future for themselves and their family.