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Helping others while helping herself: Dodgen receives state-level recognition for volunteer efforts

WORTHINGTON -- For the last three years, Debora Dodgen dedicated much of her time to the residents of Ecumen Meadows, a Worthington retirement home.

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Deb Dodgen (back, second from right) poses with residents of Ecumen Meadows, part of what she calls the "troublemaking table." (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / Daily Globe)
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WORTHINGTON - For the last three years, Debora Dodgen dedicated much of her time to the residents of Ecumen Meadows, a Worthington retirement home.

  She was acknowledged for her efforts Oct. 13, when she was recognized as Volunteer of the Year by the Minnesota Statewide Association of Activity Professionals.

  Dodgen didn’t set out to become crowned the best volunteer in the state. Rather, she took the opportunity at Ecumean Meadows as an avenue to escape pain and depression. Twenty-two surgeries had debilitated her physical and mental strength, sending her into depression.  

  “When I first started here, I was a broken puzzle and the residents opened their hearts to me,” Dodgen said. “I know that sounds sappy, but it’s true. They healed me - they really did.”

  Dodgen attributes her nearly two-dozen surgeries to bad luck. She was born with a bicuspid in her heart. Doctors told her when she was a child that she had a 5 percent chance of needing surgery. Fast forward many years later, and doctors found that not only did she have an aortic aneurysm but a mass on her right kidney as well - kidney cancer.

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  “The doctor said, ‘I don’t know what to address first, your aortic aneurysm or the kidney cancer,’” Dodgen said.

  She went forward with open heart surgery at Mayo Clinic. Three weeks later, she had her kidney removed.

  The list of medical problems doesn’t stop there. A cyst on her spine has yielded six surgeries - all unsuccessful. Two of the surgeries nicked her spine, causing pain and numbing in her legs and prompting doctors to give up on the operation.

  “The doctor told me this was the best I was going to be and I was feeling very depressed,” Dodgen said. “I felt trapped because I wasn’t able to do full-time work, and I was in a lot of pain.”

  Dodgen’s son told her she’d always been good with kids and the elderly, so she applied to volunteer at Ecumen Meadows.

  When Dodgen was interviewed by Cheryl Dinsmore, life enrichment manager at the home, she handed Dinsmore a doctor’s note that she thought would disqualify her immediately.

  “You know how doctors usually write, they scribble, you can’t read their writing,” Dodgen said. “But in big bold letters, it said ‘absolutely no lifting.’ I thought, ‘This lady’s never gonna hire me!’”

  Nonetheless, Dodgen was brought on, and she quickly became one of the most popular people at the retirement community.

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  “She’s such a breath of fresh air,” Dinsmore said. “She has what seems like boundless energy.”

  Dinsmore said Dodgen raised the bar when it came to interacting with residents, always making them laugh with her “infectious” sense of humor.

  “I just want to make them smile,” Dodgen said. “I want each one to feel special.”

  Dodgen’s job varies depending on the needs of residents. Last Thursday, she played Uno with members of the memory care unit - residents who have dementia or Alzheimer's -- which she called “the most magical place.”

  “Every day is a new story, a new adventure,” Dodgen said. “Most people have to read a book to know what it was like way back when - I get to see it all through their eyes. A lot of people kind of stay away from that unit, because it scares them, but I always want to hear their stories.”

  She helps run activities such as singing, Bible study and arts and crafts. She said she’ll do anything to get residents involved in activities.

  “I go to the extreme,” Dodgen said with a big grin. “That’s why the residents all call me crazy.”

  Dodgen has a lot of fun with the residents, who said she was “a good kind of crazy” and “the life of the party.” Dodgen attributes much of her recovery to the residents at the retirement home.

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  “They’re special people,” Dodgen said. “A lot of people avoid old people, they think about them differently. Remember, these people are human beings, they’re us. When we get old, we’re going to be them someday. They need to be shown the respect they deserve.”

  Dodgen is proud of her achievement because it means she has a platform to speak openly about the issue of depression, something she said people too often hide from their friends and family.

  “A lot of people have it and it's like taboo, you hide it, you don’t want people to know,” Dodgen said. “You’re not the only one.”

  Dodgen encouraged anyone struggling with depression to volunteer, even if it was just for a few hours a week to start.

  “I’m telling you, a shared grief is half the sorrow, but happiness shared is doubled,” Dodgen said. “I want people to know, if might feel like you have absolutely nothing to give, but no matter how much you hurt or how depressing your life is, there’s always something good you can offer.”

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