Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Giving Back Jennifer Mahnken; Once-Shy Volunteer Turns into a Leader for Outreach

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Giving Back Jennifer Mahnken; Once-Shy Volunteer Turns into a Leader for Outreach

Article excerpt

Byline: Nancy Winckler-Zuniga

When people volunteer, they can change lives - including their own. Each week in Reason, we will highlight a volunteer's story of giving back and how that selfless act was a true revelation. The volunteer project is a collaboration among the Times-Union, the University of North Florida, the United Way of Northeast Florida and HandsOn Jacksonville.

The little girl wanted her face to look like a cat, but Jennifer Mahnken wasn't sure she could deliver.

She was new to face painting, new to reaching out. She wasn't sure she could pull it off, but it was what she'd been asked to do. She was part of a college group that had committed to giving a group of children a day of fun. The smile she got for her efforts made it all worthwhile.

Mahnken was not normally someone to start a conversation with someone new. She'd grown up shy and uncomfortable in reaching out to others, but this experience woke something up in her.

"Kids don't care. They like the interaction," Mahnken said. "The fact that the whiskers might be crooked doesn't matter."

Animals don't care about small talk either. After joining the Air Force she found herself part of a volunteer crew helping out at a Humane Society facility, cleaning out cages and lavishing attention on the dogs and cats sheltered there.

"I didn't really have to talk to anyone there," Mahnken said. "Every time I went, though, I wanted to bring an animal home."

And she did, adopting a smoky gray cat that lived with her for many years after her volunteering at the shelter came to an end.

Hearing Mahnken tell about her shy, awkward first encounters with helping others is surprising compared to the animation that takes over her voice when talking about helping now. Now, her off-work hours are filled with volunteer efforts all over Jacksonville.

"It's weird when I'm not volunteering somewhere," she said.

Mahnken is a government account manager at Unison industries, a subsidiary of General Electric Co. Setting aside her shyness to help others, volunteering has become a way for her to know and connect with people in a new community. …

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