The only thing that has changed since Tom Sanders retired is who he’s helping.
Yes, Sanders still helps veterans as a volunteer at the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center, where he was executive director for 10 years. But now that he’s got more free time, he spends it volunteering with Meals on Wheels, The Lord’s Diner, Interfaith Ministries and numerous other organizations.
“The people I work for, work with and serve are wonderful,” said Sanders, winner of the Ivonne Goldstein Award for Community Volunteer. “I feel appreciated every day.”
Raised in a Catholic family, the 64-year-old Sanders says Mother Teresa tops the list of people he looks up to. His first boss, a restaurant owner named Joe Pauli, taught him the value of quality work no matter how menial the task.
At Creighton University, where Sanders earned his undergraduate degree, a professor named Jim Ault used to take students out for lunch and always foot the bill – telling students to “pay it forward” long before that concept was in vogue. Sanders’ parents, wife and daughter also have had a profound influence on his life.
After Creighton, Sanders earned graduate degrees from the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina. At one point in his 35-year career, he was executive assistant and acting chief of staff for the U.S. undersecretary for health, with an office in the Department of Veteran Affairs building overlooking the White House.
He’s steady, cheerful and is the kind of person who works hard at remembering people’s names.
In Wichita, Sanders says, he became aware of the wide gap between the wealthy and the poor, although he thinks it’s not any worse than other communities its size.
“But my volunteer work has taken me beyond the numbers and into the actual living conditions of Wichitans in need,” he wrote. “The magnitude and scope of their needs has been sobering for me.”
Sanders knew before leaving the VA that he wanted to continue to help veterans, along with mothers going through challenging pregnancies and beyond.
On Thursday afternoons, he drives a van taking patients to and from the VA hospital he once ran.
At A Better Choice, a crisis pregnancy center, Sanders’ duties include housekeeping and keeping track of inventory such as baby formula and diapers.
He is an usher and apostolate leader at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, trying to raise awareness of dignity of life and social justice issues; a driver at Meals on Wheels; a food preparer at The Lord’s Dinner; a food server at The Underground Cafe; and a donor at the Red Cross.
He works with Warming Souls – a program to feed and shelter homeless men – judges youth oratory contests for the Derby Optimist Club and serves on U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran’s military and veterans committee.
Lest you worry that Sanders doesn’t have any free time left, he reports that he’s an avid sports fan, enjoys reading and yoga, visiting his daughter and four grandchildren in Nebraska and just relaxing in front of the television with his wife.
There’s one other benefit to Sanders’ volunteering: Friends often ask him for information about the organizations he’s active in, and some get involved themselves.
But that’s not all they want to know, he said.
“Some ask if I’m busier now than when I was employed.”