When Giving Back Becomes More Valuable Than Gold
Every April, the Senior Resource Center (SRC) reaches out to its volunteers to recognize National Volunteer Month and thank them for their service to the organization. Like many critical social services agencies in the community, the extended reach of the SRC across Douglas County has always relied on the hundreds of volunteers who give their time to serve seniors.
As with so many things, COVID-19 has changed the landscape of volunteerism, and yet so many people from all walks of life continue to give of themselves to extend a hand up to those in need. Reflecting on the last year and also looking forward, volunteers remain more valuable than gold in moving the community through life with COVID-19.
LeMarie Gilbert is one of the volunteers for the Senior Wheels program.
From day one, Senior Wheels drivers, both paid and volunteer, stepped up to ensure that those who needed access to vital medical care had transportation to get to their appointments in the three communities where the group has dedicated programs. The volume of rides was quickly reduced, but the drivers forged ahead to ensure that those with ongoing treatments and medical appointments had transportation. With seven paid drivers and ten volunteer drivers, Senior Wheels services have been a critical constant in the moving target of pandemic life, including transportation for medical appointments, grocery deliveries and through assistance getting to vaccine clinics.
Medicare open enrollment in a new way
SRC began planning last fall for the challenge of providing counseling to seniors with Medicare Part D drug plan during the annual open enrollment period, even as the building was closed to the public due to a peak of COVID cases in the community. Many long-time volunteers who had been providing open enrollment counseling were apprehensive.
Evan Jorn, a veteran counselor for Senior Insurance Counseling for Kansas (SHICK), said, “Initially I thought I might not be able to help. Once the plans were in place to do all the (appointments) from home using my own computer equipment and phone, I was happy to use that method.”
With much planning and teamwork, the Health & Human Services team along with 30 state-certified counselors, many who are seniors themselves, embarked on providing this critical service in a whole new way. To ensure the safety of all involved, a system of phone and Zoom consultations was implemented, reserving a few COVID-safe appointments for seniors who preferred to meet face-to-face. Through the six weeks of open enrollment, 807 seniors were served with 46% of appointments being held by phone, 31% via Zoom and only 23% occurring in-person.
This was a major shift in serving a mass audience but in many ways, it was one of the most successful to date. According to Jorn, the flexibility and willingness to provide appointments in a variety of ways have changed the process for the better.
“I am especially thankful for those who were willing to do in-person counseling,” he said, “but there are many reasons that this new method was better for all involved. Bad weather is no longer an issue. Bitter cold, slick roads…no problem!”
The contributions of AmeriCorps member Nancy Wiebe directly impacted the success of the program. While very new to SRC, Wiebe jumped in, developing tools to ensure that each volunteer counselor was equipped with core information before making initial calls to set appointments. She pivoted to use the same skills to assist seniors registering for the COVID-19 vaccine interest form and scheduling appointments when eligible. The SRC staff and 15 volunteers helped answer thousands of calls from seniors who lacked internet access to assist them in getting registered and responding to notifications about vaccine appointments. Many of these calls are now being handled by the COVID-19 Helpline for Douglas County at 785-864-9000 which launched in early March. Seniors who have questions or continue having issues registering for the vaccine may contact the SRC at 785-842-0543.
Opportunities to volunteer in the community
As the process of getting everyone in the community vaccinated continues, the need for volunteers is growing. Vaccination clinics at the Douglas County Fairgrounds each week require hundreds of volunteers. Jillian Rodrigue, deputy director for Douglas County Emergency Management, shared that there are opportunities for volunteers age 18 and older. Many seniors volunteer for the clinics but the need will increase as the county moves into subsequent vaccination phases. To register to volunteer, visit volunteerdouglascounty.org/need.
Dr. Ed Rosales and daughter Sonja Jordan, Lawrence Douglas-County Public Health, volunteer at the March 17 COVID vaccination clinic
LMH Health is also working to phase in the use of volunteers at its facilities. Within the hospital, volunteers are returning to work in the gift shop, the surgical waiting area and assisting patients and visitors as wayfinders. Although they are not yet seeking new volunteers, visit lmh.org/volunteer to keep up-to-date about upcoming opportunities.
As part of COVID Unified Command, LMH Health is seeking volunteers with clinical skills to help at vaccination clinics. Retired nurses or anyone with basic clinical skills are needed, particularly as Douglas County makes its way into the next phase of vaccinations. Many retired physicians and nurses have already been on hand to assist with both Douglas County and LMH Health vaccination clinics. All volunteers will be vital as Kansas enters new vaccination phases that will continue into the summer months.
At this time, neither Douglas County nor LMH Health sites require volunteers to be vaccinated, but the need for volunteers will continue for some time. Organizations such as the Senior Resource Center and Just Food are grateful for the volunteers who stepped up even before the vaccine was available.
As we make our way into National Volunteer Month, look for ways you can give back to the community. Even in the most challenging times, there are opportunities to give back and keep everyone safe and healthy. If you aren’t quite there yet, more opportunities will come. Community support is invaluable.
About the author
Michelle Meier is the director of communications at the Senior Resource Center.
Ongoing volunteer opportunities are available throughout Douglas County. To learn more and sign up to volunteer, visit volunteerdouglascounty.org/need or call the Douglas County United Way at 785-843-6626.