Neighbors in Action links elderly citizens with community help
Neighbors in Action volunteer Kathie Walser gives Steve Little a ride to his medical appointment every week.
By John Chambless
It's an old-fashioned idea that still makes a lot of sense: Matching volunteers with seniors who need a little help.
As the coordinator of the Neighbors in Action program offered through the Kennett Area Senior Center, Ken Schreffler's job is recreating the kind of community support that the elderly used to have, back in the days before two-career families and overburdened schedules. Sitting in the small office he shares at the senior center this week, Schreffler said that Neighbors in Action is actually providing the kind of family support that used to be commonplace 100 years ago.
"We live in a fast-paced world today," he said, "with two wage earners, all kinds of after-school activities, and we're experiencing the sandwich generation, where adults are caring for their parents as well as their own children."
Having time to take an elderly relative to the grocery store, or to a medical appointment, or to do small fix-ups around the house, has become nearly impossible for families who may live across the country from their elders. That's where agencies like Neighbors in Action can fill the gaps.
Set up as a pilot program in 2009, it combines the strengths of the senior center and the Chester County Department of Aging Services to link volunteers and seniors. "After the pilot program, when we discovered that it was a viable program, we got funding from the United Way of Southern Chester County, as well as funds through the Mushroom Festival, area banks, Dansko and other sources," Schreffler said. Seniors who use the program also pay annual dues, a small amount that can be adjusted according to income. "It helps offset our costs, and more importantly, it gives people a sense of investment in the program," Schreffler said.
Volunteers can sign up to give as little or as much time as they have available. Schreffler sends out a spreadsheet to all the volunteers each week, listing the services needed by seniors from Nottingham to Chadds Ford. Those needs run the gamut from a simple trip to the hairdresser to minor home repairs that would be too expensive to pay a contractor to perform.
"We don't try to be the answer to every issue, but we try to fill in the gaps," Schreffler said.
As of this week, he listed 95 members and 85 volunteers. About half of the volunteers are very active, he said, with some taking two or three appointments each week.
Schreffler has been in the job almost two years, and has seen Neighbors in Action grow considerably. He speaks at community volunteer organizations such as the Rotary or the Lions Club to secure volunteers. People who might need help are referred to Neighbors in Action by their friends who attend programs at the senior center, or from family members who are concerned that their parent is isolated and can't fend for themselves.
Neighbors in Action also serves as a referral agency, so that if what a senior really needs is a visiting nurse, they will be connected to the correct agency. If a home fix-up is too complicated, Neighbors in Action will assign an area vendor to the project who can perform the repair as a reduced cost. There's also a vetting process, so the vendor is guaranteed to be reliable and honest. "I select the same kind of vendors that I'd want doing a project in my own home," Schreffler said.
The same goes for the volunteers, whose references and backgrounds are checked, and who carry sufficient insurance to transport seniors.
In his quest to spread the word about Neighbors in Action, Schreffler and volunteer coordinator Tom Hoehle have visited 17 townships. The program has been so successful that half the calls coming into the senior center were for Neighbors in Action. That led to the agency getting its own phone number recently.
Schreffler goes out on volunteer tasks himself, he said, "so I can keep in touch with what the community's needs are." He recalled recently picking up a man and taking him to the grocery store -- a trip that would ordinarily take half an hour became a 90-minute outing. "And I didn't mind at all. It's not just about going to the grocery store," Schreffler said. "It's about the relationship and the socializing."
For homebound seniors, just knowing that someone is there to help when they need it is reassuring. "It's been a very humbling, rewarding and fulfilling experience for me," Schreffler said, smiling. "It's not just a task getting done. It's the sense of community that comes from doing it."
On Tuesday morning, Neighbors in Action member Kathie Walser was giving Steve Little a ride to his appointment at Holcomb Behavioral Health on Route 1 in Kennett Square. Walser volunteers three to five times a week, and gives Little a ride every week.
"I'm retired, so it keeps me busy, keeps me active," she said, smiling.
Little said that Neighbors in Action "is a lifesaver. I was really having trouble finding a ride until I can get myself a vehicle. I found out about this, and it's really great. I've told other people about it. This organization, and the Good Neighbors organization that did a lot of repairs on my home, it's amazing that in this day and time of people not being as connected, there are people out there that really care."
During their weekly car trips, Little and Walser have gotten to know each other. "Oh, I know about her life almost as much as my life," Little said, laughing. "We have some interesting conversations. This lady's phenomenal."
For more information about Neighbors in Action, call 610-444-4143, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.kennettseniorcenter.org.