In Acts 20:35, St. Paul exhorts the Ephesians to remember the words of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
With this sterling endorsement, Joseph resident Gail Swart must rank among the most blessed people in Wallowa County — or anywhere for that matter.
The example Swart has set for community service and volunteer work recently was recognized by the Oregon chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, which bestowed on Swart its 2016 Andrus Award for community service.
Three of Swart’s five children presented her with the award at the annual Wallowa Lake Lodge Christmas party last weekend.
Friend Larry Wishart nominated Swart for the award. He said she figured out something was up when he started asking questions while he worked on the nomination paperwork.
“I was kind of embarrassed about it, but he was a man on a mission,” Swart said with a laugh.
At age 5, Swart moved with her parents Gwen and Gladys Coffin from Illinois to the Wallowa Valley for Gwen to practice law and become owner/editor/publisher of The Wallowa County Chieftain.
Early on in life, and already a budding talent on the piano, Swart learned an important lesson about giving from her mother. Embarrassed by her mother’s requests for her to play piano for her friends, Swart pretended not to hear one such request.
“I didn’t come, and that was an unhappy event. She said, ‘Gail, you have a God-given gift and you have a responsibility to share it.’ That sounds so uppity, but it’s true, too.”
Even through raising five children and teaching music from grades 1-8 for 40 years in the Enterprise school system, Swart tried to volunteer when she could. Two events combined to help throw her whole-heartedly into volunteer work.
“When my children had the nerve to grow up and leave home, I needed to fill the void ...Not only did the kids grow up, but I retired from my teaching job that I dearly loved,” she said.
Although probably best known for her musical volunteer work, Swart has a number of non-musical endeavors. She volunteers for the Soroptimists two days a week. To honor her parents, she volunteers on the Wallowa County Health Care Foundation board and elsewhere as well.
Swart plays piano at Wallowa Valley Senior Living twice a week and once a week at the Alpine House in Joseph. She’s also assistant organist at her church. Asked if she always has an ear to the ground to volunteer, Swart replied, “I never thought of it that way, but I guess so, because if there’s something you can do to help, and you have the health to do it, why not?”
Although the entire audience at the lodge party celebrated Swart’s AARP award and was pleased to be there for the occasion, Swart herself is a little shy about it.
“It’s an honor of course, but I love doing what I do, and it doesn’t seem like it needs an honor to go with it,” she said. “It’s good to be 80 years old and still feel like you have a place in the world.”
Swart accompanied nearly all the evening’s music entertainment on the piano.
She encourages others to volunteer, but with some caution, saying: “Please jump in. What you get back is far more than you put in, but protect yourself. You can easily get in over your head and find yourself really scattered.”
Playing in her church for many years, Swart said her faith helps keep her grounded when it comes to volunteering, which in turn helps her faith.
“I feel like I have so many blessings, how could I not give back? I wanted a big family and I have five children. I love to play piano and I have all these opportunities to play ... the blessings never stop.”