T.R. Ellis volunteers so much that his wife, Dee, jokes he forgets half of the things he has done.
He's that busy.
Now his committed volunteerism has paid off, in dollars, for Aviva Children's Services, a local nonprofit that supports children in the custody of the state's Child Protective Services. Aviva will get a $21,000 donation because Ellis and his wife told a heartfelt story.
"We've been blessed," said Ellis, 70, who moved from Indiana to Tucson with Dee in 1998.
It began in September when the couple registered to attend the annual AARP convention in Orlando, Fla. They were asked to write an essay about their volunteer work.
T.R. wrote about his "adoptive" family at Aviva. He wrote that he buys birthday and Christmas gifts for that family.
Well, the essay caught the eye of StoryCorps, the national, nonprofit oral-history organization whose mission is to document family interviews. Those interviews are archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps asked the couple to conduct an interview at the conference.
Sure, they agreed.
In Orlando, Dee interviewed her husband of 33 years about his 30-year history of volunteering, first in rural Indiana where he was a teacher and then an administrator, and now in the Tucson area.
During the interview, T.R. said he was shocked to see how many children came from impoverished homes, and he recounted when he first started buying birthday presents, anonymously, for students.
"Children living in poverty suffer scorn even from adults who should be taking care of them," said T.R. in his interview.
Not long afterward, the Ellises received word that their interview had been nominated as one of the top five conducted at the conference. AARP placed the top interviews in its Create the Good program, which encourages volunteerism among its members.
For making the top five, Aviva received $1,000 from Chase Card Services.
Then their interview was voted the best in AARP's "Be Inspired" online contest. It won in a landslide, said T.R. For winning, Chase donated $20,000 more to Aviva.
"If I could do back flips, I would," Bonnie Demorotski, Aviva's director of development and community relations, said of hearing the news. The nonprofit depends on contributions and in-kind donations.
The money will buy a lot of diapers, clothes, food, beds and other assistance, Demorotski said.
She called T.R. one of Aviva's most consistent volunteers. He's nicknamed the "birthday guy," for his practice of purchasing birthday presents.
"He just never stops," Demorotski said.
T.R.'s Midwestern drawl and demeanor don't connote much emotion, but it's there. In the StoryCorps interview and in our conversation, he talked about the roots of his generosity. They come from his Christian principles of giving and from his father.
They didn't have a particularly good relationship, he said. But his father, who owned a small-town grocery store, demonstrated compassion and generosity.
Over time, T.R. forgave him. From that act came the act of giving.
"I'm honoring him in a way, I guess," said T.R.
To hear T.R. Ellis' interview about volunteering, visit http://www.aarp.org/giving-back/volunteering/info-12-2010/tr_ellis_gifts_for_children.html
Ernesto Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at email@example.com or at 573-4187.