Mr. Dave and the Fireflies

Sometimes, purpose can be found where you least expect it.

Eighteen days. That’s how much of Dave Lynch’s life disappeared in 2010. It was November 14 when he had walked into Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover, NH with an intense headache and his next memory was being transferred from Mass General to a rehabilitation center on December 1.

A cerebral aneurysm. Something that would change his life forever.

He left rehab gaunt, 32 pounds lighter and forced to learn how to walk all over again. Worse was the damage the brain bleed had done to his memory; it was, essentially, shot, his short-term recall ability virtually wiped out.

The few years thereafter didn’t get much better. In 2012, he had to leave his job of 30+ years. In 2013, his mother passed away. Dave, 58 at the time, soon found himself in limbo, without stalwarts he had depended on in his life. Awash in free time and eager to busy himself, he reached out to United Way, looking for a volunteer opportunity. He didn’t know it yet, but that phone call would ultimately give him what he had yearned for in those dark days following the aneurism: purpose.

“I wasn’ t doing anything and I was getting over-anxious,” he says. “I was just trying to do something in my life.”

His United Way inquiry led him to Rochester Child Care Center, a United Way partner agency and a participant in the K-Ready Readers volunteer reader program. He didn’t know what to expect when he first walked into the pre-K Firefly room and he’s the first to admit the first sessions were a little awkward. But even then, as he maneuvered through the books with the raw delivery of a circle time rookie, Firefly Lead Teacher Caitlin Gelinas saw the potential for something special.

“We realized pretty quickly he wanted to interact with the kids,” she says.

Weekly readings soon grew into something a lot more substantial. Dave would play games, lead activities, accompany the class on field trips, take kids to swimming lessons, even get a pair of police dogs to come visit the Center.

“He’s built such a connection with the kids,” says Caitlin. “A lot of these kids may not have a strong male influence at home and for many of them, we’re the most consistent thing in their lives. And Dave is consistent here.”

At a period in his life when he didn’t feel valued, the Firefly room came to Dave at just the right time. Nothing screams “You are the man!” more than the shrieks of glee from a classroom of four year-olds as they gang-tackle you Tuesday mornings, dousing you with hugs and high-fives.

“It has been so uplifting,” Dave says. “The teachers make me feel wanted and the kids really make me feel valuable.”

“I don’t even think of him as a volunteer reader anymore,” says Caitlin. “I can’t even think of a title for him. He’s Mr. Dave. He’s part of the team.”

It’s September 1 and Dave is sitting at a tiny picnic table in front of a glorious spread of cupcakes, ice cream and donut holes. The end-of-the-summer celebration is upon the Fireflies, when nearly two-thirds of the class moves on to kindergarten. That means a new group of kids is coming in and Dave will have to place names with faces again, no small feat when your memory is running on one cylinder these days.

But it’s okay. It will come. And there will new field trips and new games and new books and new high-fives and new hugs. Because he’s not just a volunteer reader any more.

He’s Mr. Dave.