It was Melissa’s idea to dress up for the luncheon at the senior center. Amber would have been happy to show up in jeans and a T-shirt like she usually wore, but Melissa suggested she wear her Easter outfit. That meant that instead of riding her bike to the senior center, her mother drove her there so she wouldn’t get her clothes dirty.
“You look very nice,” Mary said as Amber got out of the car. “I’ll be here at two o’clock to pick you up.”
Melissa and Laura were already inside when Amber arrived. Mrs. Snow greeted her and showed her to the table. “We’ll be starting in a few minutes,” she said. “You get to sit at the head table.”
Amber looked around the room. The junior volunteers were seated at a long table near the front—Three Handy Guys at one end and the Happy Helpers at the other. Walt and Mrs. Snow had places in the middle. There were vases of fresh flowers on the tables. The room was filled with chatter as the seniors were selecting seats at the round tables.
“You girls look very nice today,” Mrs. Snow said.
“Thanks,” they said all together.
“I thought you’d be wearing stripes by now,” Spike shouted out from his end of the table.
The Happy Helpers gave him a dirty look as Walt rose and picked up the microphone.
“We’re here today,” Walt began, “to thank our junior volunteers who do so many nice things for us.” Walt introduced the Happy Helpers seated on his right and the Three Handy Guys seated on his left. “Since they are the guests of honor today, we’re going to let them go through the line first. Then we’ll call the order of the tables to follow. Stick around after you eat. We have a special video prepared by our own Hank Anderson.”
Betty Jenkins was at the head of the serving line, handing out plates and directing the diners as they progressed through the line.
“This salad with the dark-green leaves looks really good,” Amber said as she scooped some onto her plate.
“I made that,” Betty told her proudly. “I hope you like it.”
“I’m sure I will,” Amber said as she moved on to the potato salad and pasta salad. The table was loaded with all kinds of casseroles and breads. On another table, she saw luscious pies, cakes, and cookies. Amber looked for Betty’s special chocolate chip cookies but didn’t see them there.
“I love this salad Betty made,” Amber said once she had begun eating.
“That’s a surprise.” Laura laughed.
“Why?” Amber asked. “I always like salad.”
“Even spinach salad?” Laura laughed again.
“These dark-green leaves are spinach?” Amber asked, surprised. “That’s not possible. Spinach is stringy and bitter. This salad is crisp and sweet.”
“Spinach from a can is stringy and bitter,” Laura pointed out. “But fresh spinach is really good.”
“Now I wish the grasshoppers hadn’t eaten the spinach in my mom’s garden. Maybe she’ll try again, and I’ll help her grow some spinach. Now that I know how good fresh spinach tastes.”
The guests had just finished their desserts when Walt stood up and grabbed the microphone again. “As I said before, Hank has been making a video of the things that we do at the senior center. Without further ado, I call your attention to the screen that we’ve set up on the north wall. Gus, could you please dim the lights.”
As the room grew dark, Amber noticed Hank turning on the projector. It took a few minutes to warm up, and then a picture of the front of the senior center was visible on the screen. The viewers were taken on a virtual tour of the senior center as Walt, the narrator, pointed out all the activities that happened there. In the exercise room, a tai chi class was going on. Amber watched as the instructor led the seniors in smooth, graceful movements. She was thinking she would like to try tai chi some day. In the recreation room, seniors were playing chess and checkers. Others were working on a community jigsaw puzzle. The next scene showed seniors playing bingo in the dining room. Then there were highlights from the shuffleboard tournament. The video made being a senior look like a lot of fun.
At last, the video showed what the Happy Helpers had been waiting for, the spring luncheon. They laughed as they saw themselves greeting the seniors who were wearing their funny hats. Walt continued to narrate as he explained how important it was to have good volunteers. He introduced the Three Handy Guys and talked about all the things they do. There was video of them mowing the lawn and washing the vans. Hank had even gone to Gus’s house and made a video of them painting his porch. Walt continued to talk about volunteers as the video showed the Happy Helpers shredding paper, setting the table, and cleaning the kitchen.
As the next part of the video started, a hush fell over the lunchroom. This part wasn’t narrated by Walt. It showed the lunchroom the day the spoons disappeared. Bob was frantically trying to find the spoons. In the meantime, seniors were doing their best to eat the pudding with forks. In the video, pudding was dropping all over the tables and into laps. Some seniors tried drinking the pudding with equally disastrous results. Some were slipping on pudding that had been spilled on the floor. It could have been a scene from Funniest Home Videos, except no one was laughing.
As the video continued, it showed the walkway in front of the senior center. Instead of being nicely swept, it was covered with rocks and clods of dirt. Seniors in wheelchairs and those with walkers were trying to navigate their way to the front door, but it was difficult with so much debris in their path.
Amber looked over at Spike, who had his head down. Her face turned red as she watched the next part of the video. It was taken in the shredding room where Mrs. Snow and Walt were picking up the bags of shredding that Amber had cut the bottoms out of. They had shocked looks on their faces as the shredding flew everywhere. The two were down on their hands and knees, scooping it out from under the table and desk and stuffing it into new bags.
Amber was wishing the video would end, but there was more. This time, it showed the van covered in muddy water. Bob was on his way to deliver lunches to the seniors who were homebound. Instead of taking nice, hot food to them, he was saying, he would have to take time to wash the van because the windshield was too muddy to see through.
That was all Amber could take. In the next second, she was out of her seat and bolting for the door. Just as she came racing down the walkway, her mom pulled up in front.
“What’s wrong?” Mary asked when she saw the disturbed look on her daughter’s face. “Didn’t you have a good time?”
“I just want to go home,” was all the explanation Amber gave her. She sat in silence for the rest of the trip.
Amber went straight to her room and closed the door. She turned her face to her pillow just as the tears started to come. After about fifteen minutes, she stopped crying, except for an occasional sniffle.
Mary knocked on her daughter’s door. “Amber, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Amber assured her. “I just have lots of homework.”
“Laura and Melissa are here. Come on down.”
Amber went to the bathroom and washed her face. She hoped that she looked like nothing was wrong. But her puffy red eyes gave away the fact that she’d been crying.
“Why did you run out like that?” Melissa asked.
“They were just trying to make a point,” Laura said. “Walt talked to the four of us afterwards. He said he likes having us as volunteers, but he doesn’t like the war that’s been going on between us and the Three Handy Guys. We all talked it out and decided to work together instead of fighting each other. Then we can be better helpers for the seniors. That’s what’s important, isn’t it?”
“Did you say ‘the four of you’?” Amber asked.
“Spike ran out right after you did,” Melissa explained. “Logan and Chris are going over to talk to him.”
“If Spike’s in it,” Amber snarled, “I don’t want to be. Actually, I don’t want to be in it anyway.”
“But you’re the one who got us started helping Betty Jenkins,” Laura reminded her. “We need you.”
“You don’t need me!” Amber said emphatically. “I just mess things up.”
“I did some things too,” Melissa pointed out. “I’m the one who locked the boys in the ladies’ room.”
“But no one was hurt by that. I didn’t tell you before, but I’m the one who cut holes in the bags of shredding. When I saw Mrs. Snow crawling under the table to try to get all that paper . . .” Amber’s voice trailed off.
“We figured that out after we talked to Chris and Logan,” Laura told her. “They’re not mad. They know Spike did things to us. Everyone wants to just forget about it and start over.”
“That’s easy for you to say.” Amber hung her head. “You’re not the ones who made a mess of everything. You’re better off without me.”
“That’s not true,” Melissa said. “We need you. You’re an important part of our team. Like Mrs. Snow said, just because we got off to a rocky start doesn’t mean we should quit trying. We have a chance to really help people who need our help. That’s what matters.”
The Handy Helpers book series is available at Amazon