Thursday, May 8, 2008

Retiree shows he’s able, willing to help others

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Bill Ryan⁄The Gazette
Jim Carpenter and his dogs, Tucker and Zoe, play at his home in Jefferson.
Jim Carpenter was sitting on a plane 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, on his way to deliver suitcases full of laptop computers to schools in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when his personal philosophy on volunteerism began to form.

‘‘It just all of a sudden struck me. I was thinking ‘What am I doing here? Why am I here?’” Carpenter said. ‘‘I came up with a list of about 15 reasons: everything from altruistic to self-interest, and what I concluded is if it’s hard for me to judge my own motives, it’s also hard for me to judge other people’s motives. It’s developed into kind of a personal philosophy for me, which basically gives a lot of leeway to people’s actions and interpreting their behavior. How can I say really objectively what motivates me?”

He says he believes that a man should be judged based on the results of his efforts, not on the motivations behind his endeavors.

Carpenter, a Jefferson resident, keeps in line with this philosophy during interactions with various local volunteer groups. He is the treasurer and computer ‘‘geek” at Able and Willing, a Frederick group that has four times led him to visit the Congolese village Lubumbashi, where the group has built and equipped three schools.

He is also on the board of directors of the Jefferson Ruritan Club and is the longtime chair of its environmental committee; and he takes part in the Mankind Project, a nonprofit educational and training program for men.

After graduating from high school in Ann Arbor, Mich., Carpenter attended college at Indiana University and graduate school at the University of Michigan. He and his wife, Letty, have lived in the same house in a rural area of Jefferson since 1976, a year after they moved to Maryland from Michigan, and four years after they met at a graduate school party. They enjoy hiking, canoeing and walking with their beloved dogs, Zoey and Tucker.

A techie at heart, the retired 61-year-old has taken the knowledge and connections he gained during his long career as a mathematical statistician at the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, and channeled it into good works.

When he became involved with Able and Willing in 2002, Carpenter says he was unsure whether he had anything worthwhile to offer the group and the people they were trying to help. But he soon realized his technical knowledge was an asset greatly needed to improve the schools.

‘‘What convinced me to stay on and get more involved? I saw what they were doing over there and I saw a real need and a way I could make a contribution,” he said. ‘‘My contribution turned out to be computers – I brought a lot of laptops over in my suitcases.”

Using his connections, Carpenter has arranged for large-scale computer donations from governmental bodies. He also manages the Web sites for Jefferson and the Jefferson Ruritans.

Most recently, Carpenter was one of the main organizers of a successful Able and Willing initiative to ship equipment to the Congo on April 26. He led much of the logistics and fundraising work necessary to secure $10,000 worth of donated and purchased equipment, and $7,000 to rent half a shipping container in which to send it.

The long list of items the group sent includes such equipment as a 2,300-pound, 40,000-watt diesel generator, a Troy Built tiller, a popcorn maker, 60 desktop computers, a number of bicycles and 15 boxes of books. They will be used in Lubumbashi’s schools – which have been built by Able and Willing since 1995 – to enhance the teaching of trades and home skills.

‘‘All of these things are for shop classes in sewing and cooking and nursing, as well as woodshop, metal shop and welding,” Carpenter said. ‘‘It’s entirely from donations. We had some left over from last year, we do a lot of events, dinners, we generally do one or two small concerts a year, and then we do two newsletters a year.”

Carpenter’s friend Bob Hanson, his neighbor for 30 years,has seen him ease into commanding roles in his various volunteer commitments.

‘‘I told him about Able and Willing, which I was on the board of at that point, and he immediately perked up,” Hanson said. ‘‘I think he’s someone who has always had an interest in international issues and trying to find a way to help. This was an opportunity and he really took a hold of it and saw what was necessary and took all his experience with the government to make himself useful as a volunteer and now he’s the backbone of Able and Willing, along with [Able and Willing president and co-founder Mbuyu ‘‘Puma” Wa Mbuyu].”

But conversations about Carpenter often come back to that central, guiding principle, whether at a volunteer function in Jefferson or in less formal settings.

‘‘We’ve done events like canoeing the Potomac River and canoeing some creeks in Pennsylvania, and in those canoe trips we have time to talk,” Hanson said. ‘‘One of his favorite themes is that trying to think you understand a person’s motivations usually means that you are missing the essence of a person. He maintains that it is the results of what a person does that are far more telling about them, far more important about them than your thoughts about their motivations.”

It is a principle that Carpenter has learned to live by, and that he exudes as he goes about his good works.

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Do you know someone who is working to make his or her community a better place? Let us know and that person could be featured in the ‘‘Our Neighbors” series. Call 301-846-2126 or e-mail frederick@gazette.net.