by Mike Touzeau, Staff Writer
There are obvious personal benefits to be gained through volunteering that include improvement of one’s own happiness and wellbeing, but I believe that the great majority of people seeking an opportunity to give back are looking for a place where they can see firsthand and almost immediately that they are making a significant difference in someone else’s life.
If you are one of those seekers, you will discover that what Valley Assistance Services (VAS) asks of its 50 or so current volunteers in its In-Home Volunteer program is relatively simple, yet the results are hugely felt by a large group of recipients that most of us never notice, though they’re in great need in many cases.
This program is only one of many VAS provides for our local citizens, but it may be the easiest and most immediately rewarding for someone to fit into quickly because it’s all about basic human contact, something we all can do.
“Clients are so grateful,” beamed Volunteer Coordinator Edith Fletcher, a longtime volunteer herself, who spearheads the intake process, “and I’ve never seen such a successful effort to keep volunteers and clients together.”
So, who are these In-Home clients and what do the volunteers do for them?
Probably more than most of us realize, there is a significant population here who just need someone to look in on them. They are these “invisible people,” Edith says, who just need a friendly conversation, maybe a phone call to check up, a ride to the doctor’s office, some help in grocery shopping, or a minor adjustment to something gone wrong in their home.
With all we have in our lives, we can easily forget that there are many, some who may live down the street, who suddenly find they are struggling to maintain their basic lifestyle for a variety of reasons.
“Most of us are not aware because these people stay inside all the time,” Edith explained.
VAS Executive Director Chris Kang and RN Care Manager and Advocate Chris Erickson outlined some of the most common changes that can blindside aging residents and turn their daily existences upside down.
You lose something you took for granted—mobility, vision, the ability to drive, your partner in life, maybe your savings, your income. You are aging a little bit more helpless, and you find yourself wondering—what will I do to get by? Life can suddenly become scary or lonely or depressing.
Most of this particular generation were brought up to be proud and independent and look out for themselves, Director Kang said, plus there are cultural differences in America regarding responsibility for care of the elderly in the family that often translate into a forgotten soul. The In-Home program is there for them if they qualify for assistance.
“They don’t want to ask for help,” Edith affirmed. “They’re embarrassed by sudden poverty. Almost all our clients are living on very little.”
It’s the little things that mean so much to them—help with something they could always easily do before by themselves, or maybe just a friendly visit they can look forward to.
“We try to focus on keeping them as independent in the home as we can,” Nurse Erickson said. “It gives them peace of mind.”
And, every attempt is made to match volunteers and clients with common interests who enjoy spending time together, she added, so a bond is established.
“We don’t want to be like a taxi service,” Edith put it.
VAS respects the personal free time of the volunteer, which means they are taught how to say no to some requests, and they can get mileage reimbursements if they want them. They are also trained to look for red flags that Nurse Erickson needs to be informed about to protect clients and make sure they have needs met.
“Once volunteers experience it,” she said, “they really like it,” which makes it easier to keep matches together. “We’ll work with the volunteer’s personal schedule, and I think it helps the health of the volunteer, too,” she added.
Director Kang stated the program needs drivers and home visit volunteers the most, although there are other ways to help in the center as well. Tubac and its surrounding area have the same need, so volunteers will soon be needed at the new VAS Tubac Regional In-Home Program.
It’s heartbreaking, she explained, that perhaps right next door to our comfortable daily lives there is someone who is part of this lost population of proud but struggling individuals near the end of their days who truly needs a helping hand, just a little bit of someone else’s time. She has a saying that puts it pretty powerfully.
“When life is working for you, you don’t need us.”