Karen O'Keefe has dreamed of becoming a fiction writer since she fell in love with reading as a child.
As a volunteer at the Kansas University Audio-Reader Network, O'Keefe revels in reading a novel by her favorite author, Barbara Michaels. Her smile beams as she imagines penning a book of her own someday and reading it on the air.
"One of these days, I figure I'll get published and still be doing Audio-Reader, and go walking in there and hold up the book and say 'I got dibs on this,'" she said, laughing. "That would really be something -- to actually record something that you've published."
O'Keefe has been reading and volunteering at Audio-Reader for 11 years. The program is a closed-circuit radio station that broadcasts to 6,000 blind, elderly and disabled persons across Kansas and western Missouri. She spends three hours a week reading the National Enquirer and various fiction books.
After all these years volunteering, O'Keefe still gets excited about coming to Audio-Reader. She arrives at the station half an hour before her broadcast. O'Keefe enters Studio Six on the main floor and sets up shop, poring over her notes and magazines.
Her voice is crisp with purpose as she reads the latest headlines and stories such as "Katherine Hepburn Deathbed Drama," and "JFK's Bride's Secret Heartache," in the National Enquirer.
"When I started out, I was of course terrified because I was scared to death of doing something wrong. But after so long, I've gotten so used to it," she said. "I just go, 'This is going to be great today,' and it usually is. I can hardly wait to go in."
O'Keefe said she feels fortunate helping Audio-Reader and having fun at the same time.
"You just sort of lose yourself for a while," she said. "You get lost in your own little world. Sometimes with those fiction books, I just get so busy getting into it because the writers are so good."
O'Keefe, 43, has undergone a courageous transformation in her world since volunteering at Audio-Reader and receiving counseling in 1984 for "awful, terrible depression." She got involved with Audio-Reader as part of her therapy and recovery, and has become a more energetic and outgoing person.
She is currently taking vocational training at the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services in hopes of soon landing a part-time job. O'Keefe urges people who are showing signs of depression, as well as their friends and family, to reach out for assistance. Help and hope are out there, she said, crediting her sister Virginia for steering her towards the needed resources at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.
"It's made a world of difference to me," O'Keefe said. "I was just so grateful there was someone out there that understood ... because I didn't even know how to talk about it myself."
O'Keefe is doing a pretty good job of talking and reading these days at Audio-Reader. She mentions how nice it is to see some of the listeners who occasionally come and tour the station, like the blind, escorted by guide dogs. O'Keefe said she developed a greater appreciation and connection to her audience with such visits and reaffirmed her volunteer mission.
Diana Frederick, volunteer coordinator at Audio-Reader, has known O'Keefe since the day she walked into the station 11 years ago and asked about volunteer opportunities. Frederick praised O'Keefe's willingness and perseverance during her long tenure at the radio station.
"I think she shows the true spirit of volunteering," Frederick said. "Karen is a dedicated volunteer who never misses a broadcast. Her dedication is refreshing and inspiring."
O'Keefe is refreshed now after completing another spirited reading hour at Studio Six, unwinding the tape and logging her official time. She takes great pride in her volunteer work, saying how much Audio-Reader has changed her life.
"It makes me feel really good about myself and helping these people out and providing a service for people out there."
-- The volunteer profile is written by David Garfield of the Roger Hill Volunteer Center.