The Gift of Time

“I don’t remember any bad stuff, just good stuff,” Semen retorts, his intonation rising to emphasize good, ending in a prideful smile. The humidity is not seeming to affect him even though he’s sporting a herring bone suit jacket adorned with eight war medals.
He’s referring to the nineteen years he’s dedicated to volunteering as a Senior Companion to neighbors in need. His wife, Danya, shares equal sentiment, “It has made us better listeners and more understanding – we’ve learned a less formal, more human way of connecting”.
Danya and Semen’s formal connection started in 1955, when Semen gentlemanly offered Danya a bottle of water on a city street in Bobruisk, a city in Belarus. She happened to be on vacation, he was working as a school principal, and this chance meeting blossomed into a quick romance. They were married just six months later.
They stayed in Belarus for many years while Semen continued his career as a School Principal and Danya worked as a chemist in a factory until a tragic explosion at the Chernobyl power plant brought them to the United States. They settled in Minnesota, raising their two daughters, but they both felt they needed to give back to the community in some way, as they had in Russia.
Back in June 1941, when the Great Patriotic War started, Semen Paley was 14 years old. He was visiting his relatives in a small town in Belarus when Germans came close to the town and the Russian military started destroying the city. Young Semen left town with the unit and became “the son of the regiment”. He would carry ammunition and help wounded soldiers. A few months later he was sent to a safer place where he worked at the collective farm, operating a tractor. His efforts during this time awarded him eight medals.
Semen went on to earn two degrees in education, History and Russian Language and Literature, as well as a Law Degree. He has been awarded the Order of Red Banner of Labor for his contribution to education and the Merited Teacher and Excellence in Public Education of USSR award. He was also the Deputy of Supreme Soviet (Congressman). Danya was also awarded two medals for her continued work as a chemist while in Belarus.
The fierce yearning to serve is innate for both Semen and Danya so soon after settling into their new living arrangements in Minnesota, they searched for a way to be useful to their new community. They connected with Jewish Family and Children’s Services and learned of the Senior Companion Program. Semen started serving and Danya quickly followed suit, joining forces with her husband and serving as a couple – a deviation from the traditional one on one model that was typically employed. It worked perfectly as, in many cases, female clients often felt more comfortable with a female volunteer. Since Danya didn’t drive, she was able to contribute her time as well, while Semen drove to and from each client’s home and into the community for weekly errands. It was such a huge success that they served the same group of clients for 15 years, becoming almost like family.
Danya fondly speaks of a particular client that lived far from the Russian community, totally isolated from others, whose daughter and son worked all day. Danya and Semen were her only weekly contact. She lived to be 95 and often would say during their visits, “you prolonged my life”. Moments like these kept Danya and Semen returning week after week for 19 years. “The best part of being a volunteer is enriching others’ lives, we truly make a difference … social interactions, exchanging life stories, new connections, we really liked that part”, Danya states with a smile.
Their presence will be missed by the 12 other volunteers in the Jewish Family and Children’s Services Senior Companion group. With many volunteers dedicating so many years of service, the volunteers become their own little family among the masses, connected through shared purpose and goals. They will miss the purposeful service, of course, but they are active in other ways. Semen holds a position of Co-chair for the Russian speaking Veterans Organization of Minneapolis and he also runs a page as a columnist in the local Russian language magazine, The Mirror. As for Danya, they have a new seven week old great grand-daughter where she will focus her time and energy. The gift of time and presence will continue on for the Paley’s.

-Kate Neuhaus