Life creates all sorts of artificial boundaries.
Arbitrary things like town borders or the exact day that a season changes, or the year when old age begins.
Or in the case of Elmer Lajoie, work and play. Because if you’re doing manual or managerial tasks, it stands to reason you’re part of the dreary world of work. But if you’re extremely active and not getting paid, it must be the happy antithesis of our working lives — play.
Lajoie does a lot of work-like play.
He picks up and delivers food for the Hooksett Community Food Pantry. He schedules bell ringers for the local Salvation Army in Hooksett and spends hours during the busy Christmas season ringing bells himself. He and fellow Knights of Columbus staff the Salvation Army’s Back to School Event and the town welfare office’s Adopt a Family event at Christmas time.
All without getting a paycheck.
Late last year, Volunteer New Hampshire recognized Lajoie’s efforts and named him the 2017 Outstanding Service Award Winner.
“You never have to ask Elmer to volunteer. He volunteers to volunteer,” wrote Mary Farwell, director of the Hooksett Salvation Army, who nominated Lajoie for the award.
“Elmer’s everything to this place. He’s our rock,” said Barbara Brennan, the chairman of the Hooksett pantry. Besides being the delivery driver, he trains volunteers, he fixes whatever breaks down, and he lifts the heavy boxes.
Lajoie is 64, a retired machinist and factory-floor supervisor. He moved to Hooksett about 25 years ago and worked at production-related jobs. His last stint at Pratt and Whitney ended about a year ago.
He went on unemployment for about two weeks and decided to retire, challenging that boundary that says retirement delineates work from a slower life.
“This is my hobby, volunteering, giving back to the community,” Lajoie said. He never pursued sports, hunting or fishing while growing up, he said. He’s always been volunteering.
“It gives me a good feeling to help those less fortunate,” said Lajoie, a father of one and grandfather of two.
In the spring and summer, Lajoie estimates that he puts in a mere 30 to 40 hours a week. At Christmas-time, it’s closer to 60 to 80 hours.
During a shift this week, Lajoie made small talk with fellow volunteers at the pantry. At 6-foot, 1-inches tall, his size dominates a space, but he speaks softly and lets others such as Brennan do most of the talking.
The pantry is set up for minimal contact between beneficiaries and the volunteers. Recipients make appointments to arrive in 15-minute intervals. They ring a bell, and their bags are already packed. They can be gone in a minute or two.
“They feel bad, but we tell them ‘that’s why we’re here, to help people like you. Don’t feel bad or embarrassed,’” Lajoie said. He adds that the town of Hooksett is extremely generous. Businesses, churches and civic groups raise cash to keep the pantry in operation.
But all that generosity relies on volunteers such as Lajoie.
“He’s always got a smile on his face and is always willing to help. He’s steady and consistent,” said Randy Emerson, director of food programs for the Belknap-Merrimack Community Action Program. The CAP program runs the U.S. Agriculture Department’s commodities distribution program for all of New Hampshire.
Emerson added that Lajoie is not very unusual. “You would be surprised how many people are like Elmer,” Emerson said.
To be sure, Lajoie said about a hundred other people were honored when he received his award at the Volunteer New Hampshire event. No time for a speech. No governor on hand to give a handshake. But he did get a plaque, and recognition for his work.
“I always tell people, no matter how bad off you think you are, there’s always someone who’s worse off,” Lajoie said, “so be ready to help out.”